Dietrich Film Festival looks to open viewers’ eyes

Dietrich Film Festival looks to open viewers’ eyes

Dietrich Theater’s second Winter Fest transports viewers through reality and fiction with its selection of independent and international movies.
The festival curators assured they would open audiences’ eyes to some lesser-known films while also presenting several Oscar-nominated pictures among the 14 films the Tunkhannock theater will screen from Friday, Feb. 17, through Thursday, March 2.
“We want to serve the community with the art and independent films that they are looking for,” assistant general manager Ronnie Harvey said. “By doing (festivals) seasonally, we are able to give people the product we may have not gotten to, that they would have missed out on seeing in theaters.”
The festival features Oscar and Golden Globe nominees, including “Hell or High Water,” “Moonlight” and “Loving.” Other festival films include “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week,” “The Brand New Testament,” “Denial,” “The Dressmaker,” “The Eagle Huntress,” “Embrace,” “Harry & Snowman,” “Peter and the Farm,” “Queen of Katwe” and “Seasons.” Tickets for matinee and evening screenings are $8.50, excluding the opening night gala and preview day, and do not require reservations.
“I’m personally excited about all of the films because I pick them, let’s be real,” Harvey joked. “But what we try to do with the film festival is to mix in a lot of different genres and a lot of different subject matters to appeal to a broad swath of people. There is something here for everyone.”
The gala kicks off the festival Friday, Feb. 17, at 6 p.m. and includes beer, wine, hors d’oeuvres and screenings of “A Man Called Ove” and “Loving,” with dessert during intermission. Tickets are $25 and must be reserved in advance.
A post-festival film discussion takes place Friday, March 3, at 1 p.m. and gives people a chance to discuss the films with other movie enthusiasts. Harvey will facilitate the discussion.
“I think what I like most is just seeing the reaction from the audience,” he said. “It validates that we’re doing the right thing and we’re giving them what they want. That’s why we’ll continue to do these festivals. They not only help us financially but also benefit the community.”
— charlotte l. jacobson

If you go
What: Winter Fest
When: Feb. 17 to March 2; opening-night gala is Friday, 6 p.m., and $25 (advance only)
Where: Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock
Details: Tickets for matinee and evening screenings are $8.50. Call 570-996-1500 or visit dietrichtheater.com for more information.

Saturday, Feb. 18
Noon: “Harry & Snowman”
2 p.m.: “Peter and the Farm”
4 p.m.: “The Eagle Huntress”
7 p.m.: “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week”
9:45 p.m.: “Hell or High Water”
Sunday, Feb. 19
Noon: “Queen of Katwe”
2:30 p.m.: “A Man Called Ove”
5 p.m.: “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week”
7:45 p.m.: “Denial”
Monday, Feb. 20
Noon: “Seasons”
Noon: “Peter and the Farm”
2:15 p.m.: “The Dressmaker”
2:30 p.m.: “Harry & Snowman”
5 p.m.: “Hell or High Water”
7:15 p.m.: “The Brand New Testament”
Tuesday, Feb. 21
Noon: “The Eagle Huntress”
Noon: “A Man Called Ove”
2 p.m.: “Loving”
2:30 p.m.: “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week”
5 p.m.: “Embrace”
7 p.m.: “Harry & Snowman”
Wednesday, Feb. 22
Noon: “Peter and the Farm”
2:30 p.m.: “Loving”
5 p.m.: “Queen of Katwe”
7:30 p.m.: “The Dressmaker”
Thursday, Feb. 23
Noon: “Harry & Snowman”
Noon: “Embrace”
2 p.m.: “Denial”
2:15 p.m.: “Moonlight”
4:30 p.m.: “A Man Called Ove”
7 p.m.: “Queen of Katwe”
Friday, Feb. 24
Noon: “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week”
Noon: “The Dressmaker”
2:30 p.m.: “Loving”
2:45 p.m.: “The Brand New Testament”
5 p.m.: “Seasons”
7:15 p.m.: “Hell or High Water”
9:30 p.m.: “Moonlight”
Saturday, Feb. 25
Noon: “Peter and the Farm”
2:15 p.m.: “Embrace”
4:15 p.m.: “The Eagle Huntress”
7 p.m.: “A Man Called Ove”
9:30 p.m.: “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week”
Sunday, Feb. 26
Noon: “Moonlight”
2:30 p.m.: “Queen Katwe”
5 p.m.: “Loving”
7:30 p.m.: “The Dressmaker”
Monday, Feb. 27
Noon: “The Brand New Testament”
Noon: “Hell or High Water”
2:15 p.m.: “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week”
2:30 p.m.: “Denial”
5 p.m.: “Peter and the Farm”
7 p.m.: “A Man Called Ove”
Tuesday, Feb. 28
Noon: “Seasons”
Noon: “Loving”
2:30 p.m.: “The Dressmaker”
2:45 p.m.: “Harry & Snowman”
4:30 p.m.: “The Eagle Huntress”
7 p.m.: “Embrace”
Wednesday, March 1
Noon: “Moonlight”
2:30 p.m.: “Denial “
5 p.m.: “Queen of Katwe”
7:30 p.m.: “Hell or High Water”
Thursday, March 2
Noon: “A Man Called Ove”
Noon: “The Eagle Huntress”
2:15 p.m.: “The Brand New Testament”
2:30 p.m.: “Seasons”
4:30 p.m.: “The Beatles: 8 Days a Week”
7:15 p.m.: “Loving”
Friday, March 3
1 p.m.: Post-festival discussion

Sir Laugh-a-Lot

Sir Laugh-a-Lot

Legendary British actor John Cleese brings ‘Holy Grail’ to F.M. Kirby Center

Comedy legend John Cleese promises to answer more than “these questions three” and allow “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” fans insider access to the movie’s world of humor.
The famed British actor, who co-wrote the Camelot farce and starred as its Sir Lancelot the Brave, appears on stage for a conversation and Q&A following a screening of the 1975 classic on Saturday at F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, Wilkes-Barre.
During a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where he rested in the sun after an exhaustive 30-city tour with fellow Monty Python co-founder Eric Idle, Cleese revealed why people need a laugh now more than ever. As followers of his Twitter page know, Cleese closely follows world and American politics, and he has engaged in public discourse regarding the results of the recent presidential election.
“Eric and I said it was our jobs as Limeys to cheer the Americans up,” the 77-year-old said. “(President Donald Trump) doesn’t seem to have any of the qualifications. I wouldn’t immediately call him a gentleman, particularly regarding his remarks to women.
“I am worried he’s only taking one security briefing a week when (President Barack) Obama takes six. It’s an unnecessary risk to take.”
His distinct brand of absurdist comedy offers a timely departure from the post-election blues for many, especially those who established a cult following of the Monty Python movies and sketch-show bits.
“They often know the lines better than we do. It’s an extraordinary thought, it really is,” Cleese said. “What a nice bunch of fans we have. They don’t take life too serious. They’re sort of warm and friendly, so you couldn’t play for a better crowd.”
While diehards can quote his most celebrated jokes and lines verbatim, Cleese continues to evolve his comedy through innovative means. Whether it’s adapting his hit BBC show “Fawlty Towers” for the Australian stage or promoting a “Ministry of Silly Walks” app for mobile devices, he learned to rebrand the familiar for new audiences and mediums.
“People actually want to see the old stuff. The irony is, people — artists — always want to do something new, but people who put shows on want something old and familiar,” Cleese explained. “So we’re caught in a bit of a quandary: do stuff you want to do, and we try to find a way of doing some old stuff in a way that’s reasonably new.”

Incorporating the Q&A into his appearances is one way to guarantee a different, quality show every night. That, and getting plenty of sleep beforehand.
“You need to go rested, with energy. That’s how these things work, or else it doesn’t have that bounce,” Cleese said. “It’s much more interesting to interact than to stand and say the same thing you said in the past.
Audience members write out their questions, he added, and “we go through them to pick out the best ones.”
“We go off in all sorts of directions,” Cleese said. “We don’t know where we’re going. What is nice about it is the interaction.
“Some work is hard, some work is a bit of a grind, and some is just downright pleasant. And since I still have to make money, this is the nicest way to do it.”
— patrice wilding

If you go
What: Screening of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” followed by John Cleese on stage for conversation and a Q&A
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, 71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre
Details: Tickets start at $79.50, plus fees, and are available at the box office, online at www.kirbycenter.org and by calling 570-826-110.

Grab the Popcorn: Belin Film Festival gives local filmmakers a place to shine

Grab the Popcorn: Belin Film Festival gives local filmmakers a place to shine

 

Don Quixote, Waverly Community House and James Franco might not share similarities at first glance, but on Friday they meld together for opening night of the inaugural Belin Film Festival.
The festival spawned out of the Belin Arts Scholarship and the F. Lammot Belin Arts Foundation in Waverly Twp., which awards funds to artists who worked, grew up in or were somehow inspired by Northeast Pennsylvania, according to festival coordinator Alex MacNamara.
“I wanted to do something really, really special to add another element while the scholarship was still continuing,” Ms. MacNamara said. “I really wanted to broaden our impact, and I knew I wanted to do something with film. I was met with really positive feedback and willingness from the community to make this film festival happen.”
Film screenings and workshops take place this Saturday and Sunday at Waverly Community House in Waverly Twp., the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock and the Peoples Security Bank Theater at Lackawanna College in Scranton.
To kick things off Friday, guests can go to Waverly Community House for a catered opening night gala at which Mr. Franco’s latest film venture, “Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha,” screens for a large audience for just the second time.
And West Pittston native Jon YonKondy was one of eight film students to co-direct the picture.
During his final year in graduate school at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Mr. YonKondy applied for the opportunity to co-direct a film for Mr. Franco’s production company, Rabbit Bandini. Mr. Franco wanted USC student writers to adapt Miguel de Cervantes’ book into a screenplay student directors then would film.
Of the 150 students who applied to work on the film, 10 were chosen to co-write and eight to co-direct the classic tale.
“He’s a cinematic philanthropist,” Mr. YonKondy said of Mr. Franco. “He’s an odd guy, but he also has a very big heart and likes to help foster new talent in the industry. He teaches classes at USC, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and NYU (New York University). … He was a wonderful guidance in the classroom. To learn from someone who knew so much about the process, from being an actor to a producer, and having that level of experience in the industry guiding us in the process from start to finish was amazing.”
Although the actor-producer won’t appear at the festival, it has a jammed-packed schedule for film buffs and filmmakers alike. Guests can see five feature films: “Don Quixote,” “PlayMe Burlesque,” “Landfill Harmonic,” “Occupy Texas” and “All in Time,” which West Hazleton native Chris Fetchko created. The weekend also includes three blocks of short film screenings in the categories “mature,” “quirky and thoughtful” and “local/mixed.”
To align with the festival’s theme of “Heritage and Inheritance,” several of the films hail from the region, but the festival also received submissions from as far as Greece and Australia.
Additionally, Waverly Community House will host two workshops Saturday. The Film School Workshop with Dunmore filmmaker Lindsay Barrasse, set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., acts as a filmmaking 101 class and is free to festival ticket holders. Then, a free staged reading of the screenplay “Retiring Agnes,” about the 1972 flood, runs from 2 to 4 p.m.
Mr. YonKondy believes the creative spirit behind his film resembles “the Belin spirit” of giving “a voice to young filmmakers who would not otherwise have that opportunity.” And, Ms. MacNamara said, “it’s great to bring a legitimate, life-size film festival to the area.”
“I hope it inspires kids who are interested in film,” she said. “I’m excited for it to be an artistic experience that everyone can collectively enjoy. It also feels like a real gift. We’re doing something for the community but also doing something for our local filmmakers by giving them a platform, giving locals a place to screen their films.”
—charlotte l. jacobson

 

Festival schedule
Friday
6 to 10 p.m.: Opening night gala, Waverly Community House
7 p.m.: “Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha” screening, Waverly Community House
Saturday
11 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Film School Workshop, Waverly Community House
Noon to 2 p.m.: Shorts Block A (Mature), Dietrich Theater
1 to 3 p.m.: Shorts Block B (Quirky and Thoughtful), Theater at Lackawanna College
2 to 4 p.m.: Staged reading of “Retiring Agnes” screenplay, Waverly Community House
3 to 5:30 p.m.: “All in Time” screening,
Dietrich Theater
4 to 6 p.m.: “Landfill Harmonic” screening, Theater at Lackawanna College
7 to 9 p.m.: “Occupy Texas” screening, Theater at Lackawanna College
Sunday
1 to 3 p.m.: “PlayMe Burlesque” screening, Dietrich Theater
1 to 3 p.m.: Shorts Block C (Local/Mixed), Theater at Lackawanna College
3 to 5 p.m.: BFF Challenge Screening, Theater at Lackawanna College

 

If you go
When: Friday to Sunday
Where: Waverly Community House, 1115 Abington Road, Waverly Twp.; Dietrich Theater, 60 E. Tioga St., Tunkhannock; and Peoples Security Bank Theater at Lackawanna College, 501 Vine St., Scranton
Details: Tickets are $15 general/$5 students for single-day passes, $35 Saturday and Sunday, $100 for all-access weekend pass, $10 for student weekend pass and free for children under 12. Call 570-862-1743 or visit flbaf.org for more information.

Screens – Oct. 6, 2016

Screens – Oct. 6, 2016

Opening This Week

“Birth of a Nation”
Nate Parker, Armie Hammer
In this R-rated biopic, Nat Turner (Parker), a literate slave and preacher in the Antebellum South, orchestrates a violent uprising. The Plus: The lightning rod. Following a year in which Black Lives Matter dominated the headlines and the film industry was found to have a ridiculous amount of racial and ethnic inequality — a year in which H’wood’s biggest awards event earned the Twitter hashtag and social media blurb “Oscars So White’ — “Birth of a Nation” lit up the festival circuit. Thankfully NOT a remake of the 1915 silent classic but rather a nod to that film’s controversial and racist overtones, writer-producer-director-star Nate Parker’s take on the Nat Turner slave rebellion won both the audience award and grand jury prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and it struck comparisons to “12 Years a Slave,” which won the Oscar for best picture in 2014. Here, Parker (“The Great Debaters,” “Beyond the Lights”) makes his feature directorial debut with a cast that includes Hammer (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”), Mark Boone Junior (FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”), Dwight Henry (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), Gabrielle Union (“Top Five”), Penelope Ann Miller (“The Artist”) and Jackie Earle Haley (AMC’s “Preacher”). The Minus: The lightning rod. For all of his film’s accolades, Parker’s private life has been in the press as of late. A 1999 rape charge, and the 2001 trial in which the performer was acquitted, have recently been resurrected, causing the critically lauded film to suffer by proxy. An Aug. 26 screening at the AFI was canceled and distributer Fox Searchlight is reportedly now re-assessing the production’s Oct. 7 rollout. The film did, however, get a standing ovation after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last month.

 

“The Girl on the Train”
Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson
In this R-rated mystery-thriller based on the bestselling novel of the same name, lonely, alcoholic divorcee Rachel Watson (Blunt) takes the train to and from an imaginary workplace every day, making up stories in her head about the people who live in the houses surrounding the one she shared with her ex-husband and his new wife as she goes. She wakes up hungover one day with foggy recollections of something having happened to one of these passersby (Ferguson)…or is it all in her mind? The Plus: The material. In 2015, Paula Hawkins’s book debuted and then stayed atop the New York Times bestseller list for 13 weeks, eventually going on to sell more than 11 million copies, according to BBC News. For the adaptation by Erin Cressida Wilson (“Secretary”), Tate Taylor, who knows a thing or two about successfully bringing bestsellers to screen having shepherded “The Help,” directs a cast that includes Blunt (“The Hunstman: Winter’s War”), Ferguson (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), Haley Bennett (“Hardcore Henry”), Justin Theroux (HBO’s “The Leftovers”), Luke Evans (“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”), Edgar Ramirez (“Hands of Stone”), Allison Janney (CBS’s “Mom”), Lisa Kudrow (“Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”) and Laura Prepon (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”). The Minus: The difficulty. “The Girl on the Train” involves unreliable narration from three different points of view and 326 pages of psychological mind games. Boiling this down into a two-hour film poses problems, but here’s hoping that audiences find another “Gone Girl” on their hands.

On the Fringe

On the Fringe

Alternative performance artists require unique platforms to express their messages.

Scranton Fringe Festival returns for its second year Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 2 to Oct. 2, to fulfill these needs at various venues throughout the Scranton area.
Admission to performances costs $10 each, with tickets available at venues or online at scrantonfringe.org. Festival buttons are $5 and allow for $7 admission at events.
The weekend kicks off with a free preview party on Thursday, Sept. 29, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Scranton Cultural Center at The Masonic Temple, 420 N. Washington Ave. The weekend concludes Sunday, Oct. 2, at 8 p.m. with a wrap party at AFA Gallery, 514 Lackawanna Ave.
Festival co-founders Conor O’Brien, who acts as executive director, and Elizabeth Bohan, who serves as managing director, said about 3,000 people attended last year’s festival.
Fringe festivals date back to 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and feature diverse sets of shows, such as comedies, musicals, dance, short stories, visual exhibits and morcover1_webe.
O’Brien formerly participated in several fringes throughout the country as an actor and writer. He and Bohan decided Scranton should participate to bring artists and the community together.

Guests can expect to see more than 50 acts this year, ranging from improv comedy to Shakespeare interpretations and many more. The full schedule can be found on the festival’s website.
“The festival represents performers from nine different U.S. states,” O’Brien said. “We’re very proud to be hosting national friends and artists.”
He added that Scranton Fringe also features the talent of artists in the local community, and that while the directors provide the platform, it is really the artists who promote themselves and their talent.
For Cody Clark, Scranton Fringe Festival provides a valuable opportunity.

The recent University of Louisville graduate and Kentucky native is a full-time magician and autism self-advocate. Clark hopes to inspire audiences with his show “Cody Clark: A Different Way of Thinking.”
Clark enjoys the thrill of performances and likes fringe festivals in particular, because he meets all different kinds of people. He aims to influence audiences through his love of magic and by incorporating living with autism in his shows.
“I hope to share that, for me, autism is simply a different way of thinking,” Clark said. “It’s nothing for you to be scared of. Through my love of magic, I’ve learned to embrace who I am.”
Clark’s performance is slated for Saturday, Oct. 1, at 7 p.m. at Scranton Cultural Center. He’ll also perform “Conductor Cody,” a children’s magic character based on railroading, earlier that afternoon at 3 p.m. at Lackawanna County Children’s Library, 520 Vine St.
Scranton Fringe offers an eclectic mix of talent and ideas that appeal to diverse patrons from all walks of life, organizers said.
“I hope that people take away the fact that Scranton is full of passionate, dedicated people who are interested in art,” Bohan said.
— emma silva

 

If you go
What: Scranton Fringe Festival
When: Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 29 to Oct. 2; times vary
Details: Tickets for each performance cost $10 and are available at the door or online at scrantonfringe.org. Festival buttons are $5 and give wearers $7 admission to each show. For buttons, visit Fringe headquarters at 222 Wyoming Ave. For a complete schedule, visit the festival’s website.

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Screens: Sept. 29, 2016

Screens: Sept. 29, 2016

Opening this week

“Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children”
Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson
In this PG-13-rated fantasy based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, a boy’s (Asa Butterfield) attempt to solve a mystery that spans different worlds and times leads him to Miss Peregrine’s (Green) Home for Peculiar Children, where the residents have special powers. The Plus: The players. Director Tim Burton’s signature dark and quirky style should lend itself quite well to the oft-kilter, young-adult fiction of Riggs, who already has two more books out in this New York Times bestseller series: “Hollow City” and “Library of Souls.” Here, working from a screenplay by Jane Goldman (“Kingsmen: The Secret Service”), Burton directs Green (Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful”), Jackson (“The Legend of Tarzan”), Butterfield (“Ender’s Game”), Allison Janney (CBS’s “Mom”), Chris O’Dowd (“St. Vincent”), Judi Dench (“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), Rupert Everett (“Stardust”) and Terence Stamp (“The Adjustment Bureau”). The Minus: The odds. Burton has never made an out-and-out bad film. With every few notches on his CV, however, there comes a project that largely divides critics and audiences (“Mars Attacks!,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Dark Shadows”).

“Deepwater Horizon”
Mark Wahlberg, Dylan O’Brien
In this PG-13-rated fact-based thriller, the mettle of a team of oil drillers gets put to the test during the April 2010 explosion on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The Plus: The story. Last year, “Spotlight,” a drama dealing with The Boston Globe’s unraveling of the Roman Catholic Church cover-up of sexual abuse cases, took home top honors at the Academy Awards, among countless others. Also boasting a timely true story and cast full of stars, “Deepwater Horizon” hopes for similar success. Here, working from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (“World War Z”), Peter Berg (“Hancock”) directs Wahlberg (“Ted 2”), O’Brien (“The Scorch Trials”), Kate Hudson (“Mother’s Day”), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Ethan Suplee (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and John Malkovich (“Zoolander 2”). The Minus: The odds. “Friday Night Lights” remains Berg’s best-reviewed film. Prolific (“Patriots Day,” his film about the Boston Marathon bombings, bows in December) but often met with mixed reactions, his filmography runs the gamut from decent (“Very Bad Things,” “The Kingdom”) to just plain awful (“Battleship”). His last release, “Lone Survivor,” another true story starring Wahlberg, unfortunately skewed toward the latter of these two poles.

“Masterminds”
Zach Galifianakis,
Kristen Wiig
In this PG-13-rated comedy, a night guard (Galifianakis) at an armored car company in the South, tries to pull off one of the biggest bank heists in American history. The Plus: The genre. Based on the true story about a $17 million robbery of a Loomis Fargo armored car in Charlotte, North Carolina, “Masterminds” has assembled an A-team of comedy. Here, Jared Hess (“Napoleon Dynamite”) directs Galifianakis (“Birdman”), Wiig (“Sausage Party”), Kate McKinnon (the forthcoming “Office Christmas Party”), Jason Sudekis (“Mother’s Day”), Owen Wilson (“Zoolander 2”) and Leslie Jones (“Ghostbusters”). The Minus: The odds. Notice that most of the successful comedies in theaters lately have been R-rated (“Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Bad Moms,” “Sausage Party”). Also, since releasing pop cultural sensation “Napoleon Dynamite,” Hess has failed to find follow-up success (“Nacho Libre,” “Gentleman Broncos”). Based on the lackluster display of said comedy in the trailers, “Masterminds” looks to make this an unfortunate three-peat for the director.

 

Now Playing

“The Magnificent Seven”
Denzel Washington, Chis Pratt
*** — The Mild Bunch
Despite falling far short of the classic status long bestowed on the 1960 original, this oftentimes entertaining remake might not be “Magnificent,” but the cast and slick direction alone just about earn it a “Seven” out of 10. In this PG-13-rated remake, seven gunmen in the Old West (Washington, Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, et al) gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves. Granted, this production never intended to take on the Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Eli Wallach, Brad Dexter and James Coburn western re-do of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” — just draw inspiration from it … or one would hope. The original garnered an iconic status so vaunted that H’Wood (an institution long known for revering the sanctity of film’s Golden Age by greedily pilfering from it) has been trying to remake it for years. In playing with matches in and around such a legacy, “The Magnificent Seven” 2.0 could’ve been an outright disaster (reportedly in the planning stages since 2012, one false start of this iteration was once rumored to star Tom Cruise, Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman), but the product that results more than breaks even, albeit barely. Even beyond revisiting the script of the original’s (which many younger filmgoers haven’t seen), this remake nonetheless feels redundant and predictable. Sure, with mixed-race players at the forefront, “Seven” brings a welcome revisionist feel to this very modern western, but the color-by-numbers plot pointing up the importance of disparate people working together despite their differences and painting a broad portrait of an industrial captain-as-industry as a mustache-twirling villain comes across as clichéd when it should scream of topicality. Led by the dynamic twosome of Washington and Pratt, however, “The Magnificent Seven” works on one critical level: likeability. Dangerous but charismatic in their own right, each character (admittedly some more than others) gets the benefit of strong casting to color in the edginess of their respective desperado. It works, offering up a semi-lovable rogue gallery that earns the sympathies of the audience even when some of their characters seem to be written as caricatures. His skills as an action director honed well on “Training Day,” “Olympus Has Fallen” and “The Equalizer,” Antoine Fuqua captures the shoot-‘em-up fireworks with enough visual flair to ratchet up the intensity without stealing thunder from his star-studded cast.

“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years”
Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr
***1/2 — The Fab Four-Reeler
This documentary from Ron Howard (“In the Heart of the Sea”) features a compilation of footage featuring music, interviews and stories chronicling the Beatles’ 250 concerts from 1963 to 1966. If you’re a true Beatles fan, you’ve probably already unearthed every conceivable nugget of information regarding music history’s greatest band of all time. That said, if you’re a true Beatles fan, you’ll show up to watch the same archival footage and canned new interviews not to discover new information but out of pure devotedness. What “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years” offers both devotees and curious passersby alike is a relatively short, sweet and slickly produced summation of the group’s live performances before they became fed up with touring incessantly during the height and inevitable decline of Beatlemania. Like the best of his CV (“Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Rush”), Howard’s first feature-length documentary evinces a reverence for history while, at the same time, buffing the content into a sheen that shines like the best gosh-darn floor wax. Unless you didn’t know that John Lennon provoked a firestorm of hate toward the band by comparing them to Jesus, there’s little controversy that pops up here — just a good-looking and safe music history lesson (this will prove much more difficult a feat if Howard mounts a like-minded chronicle of the sometimes tumultuous studio years). McCartney, Starr and George Martin (their Abbey Road sound engineer) pop up in new interviews while Lennon and George Harrison appear in archival footage.

The 2014 Fall Movie Preview

The 2014 Fall Movie Preview

So, that happened. The ‘that’ in this case is summer, usually a period boasting the best, biggest and most blockbusting popcorn H’Wood can produce. After a gangbuster start (Captain America: Civil War, we’re looking at you!), the dog days logged as many misses (Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters, Ben Hur) as hits (Bad Moms, Finding Dory, Star Trek Beyond). Granted, the season-end totals came in just shy of last year’s amount. Heck, even the flicks that went on to make a profit overseas still couldn’t back down a crushing wave of critical backlash that may nix talk of a sequel. To this end, consider fall a do-over. Packed with returning hit franchises (Harry Potter! Marvel!), star-studded sequels (Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon! Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher!) and early award contenders (The Girl on the Train! Birth of a Nation!), this autumn is shaping up to be the summer that we never really had. Read on.

The Magnificent Seven (Sept. 30)
Denzel Washington, Chis Pratt
In this PG-13-rated remake of the classic western, seven gunmen in the old West (Washington, Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, et al) gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves. The Plus: The players. In 1960, Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Eli Wallach, Brad Dexter and James Coburn came together for a western re-do of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The result? An iconic status so vaunted that H’Wood has been trying to remake it for years. Reportedly in the planning stages since 2012, Antoine Fuqua’s iteration was once rumored to star Tom Cruise, Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. Ultimately, the director of Training Day, Tears of the Sun, Brooklyn’s Finest and The Equalizer smartly chose two frequent collaborators, Washington and Hawke, among his Magnificent Seven. Here, Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) directs an impressive cast that includes Washington (Flight), Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Hawke (Boyhood), D’Onofrio (Jurassic World), Peter Sarsgaard (Black Mass), Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry), Matt Bomer (Magic Mike XXL), Luke Grimes (Fifty Shades of Grey), Cam Gigandet (The Roomate) and Vinnie Jones (The CW’s Arrow). The Minus: The buzz. The remake underwhelmed critics and audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival.

covertomMiss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (Sept. 30)
Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson
In this as-yet-unrated fantasy based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, a boy’s (Asa Butterfield) attempt to solve a mystery that spans different worlds and times leads him to Miss Peregrine’s (Green) Home for Peculiar Children, where the residents have special powers. The Plus: The players. Director Tim Burton shows a knack for many genres, be it comedy (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands), comic book film (Batman, Batman Returns), biopic (Ed Wood, Big Eyes), musical (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), animated film (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie) and/or family film (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland). His signature dark and quirky style should lend itself quite well to the oft-kilter young-adult fiction of Riggs, who already has two more books out in this New York Times bestseller series: Hollow City and Library of Souls. Here, working from a screenplay by Jane Goldman (Kingsmen: The Secret Service), Burton directs Green (Showtime’s Penny Dreadful), Jackson (The Legend of Tarzan), Butterfield (Ender’s Game), Allison Janney (CBS’s Mom), Chris O’Dowd (St. Vincent), Judi Dench (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), Rupert Everett (Stardust) and Terence Stamp (The Adjustment Bureau). The Minus: The odds. Burton has never made an out-and-out bad film. With every few notches on his CV, however, there comes a project that largely divides critics and audiences (Mars Attacks!, Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows).

Deepwater Horizon (Sept. 30)
Mark Wahlberg, Dylan O’Brien
In this PG-13-rated fact-based thriller, the mettle of a team of oil drillers gets put to the test during the April 2010 explosion on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The Plus: The story. Last year, Spotlight, a drama dealing with The Boston Globe’s unraveling of the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse cases, took home top honors at the Academy Awards, among countless others. Also boasting a timely true story and cast full of stars, Deepwater Horizon hopes for similar success. Here, working from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z), Peter Berg (Hancock) directs Wahlberg (Ted 2), O’Brien (The Scorch Trials), Kate Hudson (Mother’s Day), Gina Rodriguez (The CW’s Jane the Virgin), Ethan Suplee (The Wolf of Wall Street) and John Malkovich (Zoolander 2). The Minus: The odds. Friday Night Lights remains Berg’s best-reviewed film. Prolific (Patriots Day, his film about the Boston Marathon bombings, bows in December) but often met with mixed reactions, his filmography runs the gamut from decent (Very Bad Things, The Kingdom) to just plain awful (Battleship). His last release, Lone Survivor, another true story starring Wahlberg, unfortunately skewed toward the latter of these poles.

Masterminds (Sept. 30)
Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig
In this PG-13-rated comedy, a night guard (Galifianakis) at an armored car company in the south organizes one of the biggest bank heists in American history. The Plus: The genre. Based on the true story about a $17 million robbery of a Loomis Fargo armored car in Charlotte, North Carolina, Masterminds has assembled an A-team of comedy. Here, Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) directs Galifianakis (Birdman), Wiig (Sausage Party), Kate McKinnon (the forthcoming Office Christmas Party), Jason Sudekis (Mother’s Day), Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) and Leslie Jones (Ghostbusters). The Minus: The odds. Notice that most of the successful comedies in theaters lately have been R-rated (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Bad Moms, Sausage Party). Also, since releasing pop cultural sensation Napoleon Dynamite, Hess has failed to find follow-up success (Nacho Libre, Gentleman Broncos). Based on the lackluster display of said “comedy” in the trailers, Masterminds looks to make this an unfortunate three-peat for the director.

ec22_fallmovie_9_webThe Girl on the Train (Oct. 7)
Emily Blunt, Rebecca Ferguson
In this R-rated mystery-thriller based on the bestselling novel of the same name, lonely, alcoholic divorcee Rachel Watson (Blunt) takes the train to and from an imaginary workplace every day, making up stories in her head about the people who live in the houses surrounding the one she shared with her ex-husband and his new wife as she goes, until she wakes up hungover one day with foggy recollections of something having happened to one of these passersby (Ferguson)…or is it all in her mind? The Plus: The material. In 2015, Paula Hawkins’s book debuted and then stayed atop the New York Times bestseller list for 13 weeks, eventually going on to sell more than 11 million copies, according to BBC News. For the adaptation by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), Tate Taylor, who knows a thing or two about successfully bringing bestsellers to screen, having shepherded The Help, directs a cast that includes Blunt (The Hunstman: Winter’s War), Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry), Justin Theroux (HBO’s The Leftovers), Luke Evans (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies), Edgar Ramirez (Hands of Stone), Allison Janney (CBS’s Mom), Lisa Kudrow (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) and Laura Prepon (Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black). The Minus: The difficulty. The Girl on the Train involves unreliable narration from three P.O.V.s and 326 pages of psychological mind games. Boiling this down into a two-hour film poses problems, but here’s hoping that audiences find another Gone Girl on their hands.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Oct. 21)
Tom Cruise, Colbie Smulders
In this PG-13-rated crime-thriller, Jack Reacher (Cruise) must learn the truth behind a major government conspiracy in order to clear his name and uncover a potential secret from his past that could change his life forever. The Plus: The star. The 21st century didn’t start out so well for the one-time biggest movie star in the world. After Cruise’s headline-grabbing departure (ahem, firing) from Paramount in 2006 after 14 years, the actor began an unsuccessful tenure as the new head of United Artists (Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie). With the gi-normous successes of 2012’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and the 2015 follow-up, Rogue Nation, however, Cruise’s star burned white hot again. Despite being dogged by angry fans (over 20 books and nearly 20 years, novelist Lee Child’s character gets described as a 6-foot-5-inch strapping ex-solider … Cruise is reportedly all of 5-feet-7-inches), 2012’s Jack Reacher garnered above average reviews and proved to be a box office hit. When the first film’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, committed to helming the latest Mission: Impossible, Cruise tapped heavy hitter Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) for Never Go Back. The Minus: The odds. Jack Reacher, which was intended as a tentpole on which to frame an entire series, didn’t hit blockbuster status domestically. It was only after the worldwide box office kicked up a grand total north of $200 million that Never Go Back got the greenlight. While this might be good news for the potential franchise overall, it only goes to show that Reacher is certainly not an established brand as of yet.

Doctor Strange (Nov. 4)
Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams
In this PG-13-rated fantasy-adventure, a neurosurgeon (Cumberbatch) with a destroyed career sets out to repair his hands only to become embroiled in a mission to protect the world from inter-dimensional threats. The Plus: The brand. Since 2008, Marvel Studios released 13 movies that amassed more than $20 billion. May’s Captain America: Civil War, which was Marvel’s highest-grossing and one its best reviewed yet, kicked off Phase 3 for the studio. Next comes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5, 2017), Thor: Ragnarok (Nov. 3, 2017), Black Panther (Feb. 16, 2018), Avengers: Infinity War — Part I (May 4, 2018), Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 6, 2018), Captain Marvel (March 8, 2019) and Avengers: Infinity War — Part II (May 3, 2019) … after Doctor Strange, that is. For their next trick, they tapped Sinister director Scott Derrickson to helm Cumberbatch (BBC’s Sherlock), McAdams (Spotlight), Tilda Swinton (Hail, Caesar!), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Triple 9), Mads Mikkelson (NBC’s Hannibal), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Michael Stuhlberg (Trumbo) and Benjamin Bratt (The Infiltrator). The Minus: Not much. It’s nearly impossible to find a chink in Marvel’s armor. True, Doctor Strange tackles a trippier hero than usual (he has a cape, yes, but deals in sorcery). Also, the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One, a role that’s always been portrayed in the comics as an older Asian gentleman, has caused a lot of rumbling by fanboys and others. With the kick-ass trailers hinting at some Inception-style thrills, however, moviegoers are sure to line up early for Marvel’s latest.

ec22_fallmovie_7_webFantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
(Nov. 18)
Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell
This as-yet-unrated fantasy-adventure chronicles the adventures of writer Newt Scamander (Redmayne) in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards 70 years before Harry Potter reads his book in school. The Plus: The franchise. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 bowed to critical accolades in 2011, it also brought a close to the second highest-grossing film series of all time … or so many thought. Five years later, J.K Rowling’s infamous creation is back and possibly bigger than ever. Currently the rage of London’s East End theater district and recently atop the bestseller lists, Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and its accompanying script are continuing the story of the boy (now adult) wizard to the collective joy of fans all around the world. For her first screenwriting gig, Rowling fleshed out her own book, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, into a further extension of the Potter universe set in 1920s Manhattan. Here, David Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter films), helms a cast that includes Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Farrell (HBO’s True Detective), Ezra Miller (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), Samantha Morton (John Carter), Dan Fogler (ABC’s The Goldbergs), Zoe Kravitz (Allegiant), Jon Voight (Showtime’s Ray Donovan), Ron Perlman (FX’s Sons of Anarchy) and Carmen Ejogo (Selma). The Minus: The material. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is written as a textbook, with the story for the film developed beyond its encyclopedia-like entries. Is there enough of a screenplay to … wait, are you leaving to line up at the box office already?

Screens- Sept. 15, 2016

Screens- Sept. 15, 2016

Opening this week

Bridget Jones’s Baby
Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth
This PG-13-rated comedy chronicles the continuing adventures of British publishing executive Bridget Jones (Zellweger) as she enters her 40s torn between two lovers (Firth, Patrick Dempsey). The Plus: The players. Despite starring a Texas-born actress in the very English lead role and putting a first-time director to the test, 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary became an unlikely smash hit, solidifying the star power of Zellweger (Jerry Maguire) and Hugh Grant (Notting Hill) while hinting at the Oscar-winning star power of Firth yet to come (The King’s Speech). Also based on a Jones novel by Janet Fielding, 2004’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason did decent business at the box office but left a sour note with critics. Now, 12 years later, Baby makes three. Returning for the first time since Diary, director Sharon Maguire helms a cast that includes Zellweger (Chicago), Firth (Kingsmen: The Secret Service), Dempsey (ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy), Gemma Jones (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2), and Jim Broadbent (Brooklyn) … but NOT Grant (Florence Foster Jenkins). The Minus: Timing. Did you ever hear the expression Late to the party? Coming 12 years after its predecessor, Barbershop: The Next Cut banked some decent coin, while My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 — bowing 14 years after the first brouhaha — proved to be a modest hit. Box office flop Zoolander 2, however, found out the hard way in February that sequel potential has a VERY short shelf life. As Zellweger’s first film role since 2009’s Case 39, Bridget Jones faces that same challenge.

Blair Witch
James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez
In this R-rated found-footage horror flick, James (McCune) takes a group of his friends into the forest in search of his lost sibling after seeing a video showing what he believes to be his sister’s experiences in the demonic woods of the Blair Witch. The Plus: The genre. Horror fans rarely take a vacation, not even during the back-to-school period. Whether, winter, spring, summer or — yes — fall, they often show up to the cinema in spades. Indeed, some thriller franchises have a knack for scaring up boffo box office (this summer’s The Purge: Anarchy, this month’s Don’t Breathe). Now, 17 years after a certain indie thriller turned H’Wood’s head to the tune of over $248 million and launched found footage horror as a genre all of its own, the Blair Witch is back. While the cast is composed mostly of unknowns, this flick boasts the talents of director Adam Wingard, who gave audiences the scary-good thrillers You’re Next and The Guest. The Minus: The odds. When Lionsgate unveiled Blair Witch at a screening during San Diego Comic-Con in July, the movie universally got met with cheers. Still, was this because of quality or the fact that this closely guarded secret production came as a complete surprise to horror fans? The fact that critics are qualifying it as better than the last Blair Witch sequel, the scary-bad Book of Shadows, doesn’t instill much confidence.

Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shaillene Woodley
In this R-rated thriller based on real events, NSA employee Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) leaks thousands of classified documents to the press. The Plus: The players. Considering director Oliver Stone’s CV, none of his films really seem ripe for the sequel treatment (The Revenge of JFK, Born on the 5th of July or Any Given Monday, anyone?). Given the 2008 financial meltdown, however (the banking industry really seemed to take Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” mantra to the extreme), Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps seemed to make more sense than Platoon 3-D … until it landed with a thud. Thankfully, he got back in the director’s chair for a bio-pic that plays to his strengths. Perhaps, going back to the days when his barnstorming kinetic style turned conspiracies and controversy into fascinating thrillrides (Natural Born Killers, Nixon), there’s never been a better marriage for his talents and subject matter than with Snowden. Just look at his casting: In addition to Gordon-Levitt (The Walk) and Woodley (The Divergent Series: Allegiant), this drama features the talents of Melissa Leo (London Has Fallen), Zachary Quinto (Star Trek Beyond), Rhys Ifans (Alice Through the Looking Glass), Nicolas Cage (Left Behind), Tom Wilkinson (Selma) and Joely Richardson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The Minus: The odds. During the aughts, the once-unstoppable blockbusting of Stone gave way to a bad box office run consisting of a klutzy personal project (Alexander), politically charged misfire (W.) and a critical gem that never really caught fire (Savages). If Snowden doesn’t garner good word of mouth and reviews early, it’ll get banished faster than its subject.

 

Now Playing

Sully
Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart
**** — Straighten Up and Fly Right
Carefully presented with a sure-handedness that easily makes its title character emerge as a hero for the ages, near-disaster flick Sully makes a horrible in-flight movie, but the sheer A-grade craftsmanship of its director and star assure that it will fly smoothly enough into awards season. This PG-13-rated drama based on real events tells the story of Chesley Sullenberger (Hanks), the veteran pilot who became a hero after gliding his plane onto the Hudson River, saving all of its 155 crew members and passengers. Like flying on a commercial airliner these days, Clint Eastwood’s direction usually smacks of a no-frills experience. There’s very few if any showboating stylistic flares — just straight-ahead storytelling told as if the camera were a fly on the wall. The script, more often than not and for better or worse, does a lot of the heavy lifting … not all of the heavy lifting, mind you, as the cast plays a ridiculously important part Thankfully, Brace for Impact, a memoir written by the actual Sullenberger, provides the compelling basis for a screenplay that builds drama not just from the actual “Miracle on the Hudson” (as it was called in the press), but the criticism leveled by the National Transportation Safety Board at the esteemed pilot in the aftermath. Just as with Eastwood’s American Sniper, it feels like certain facts get massaged (particularly, the one-dimensional portrayal of the NTSB investigators as villainous prosecutors) in an attempt to lionize the subject. Still, Sully the man and Sully the film are worth lionizing to a very large degree. Like the director, two-time Oscar winner Hanks has ascended from movie star to the mantle of movie legend, garnering universal critical and audience adoration as an on-screen American everyman that equals the high bar set by Jimmy Stewart. At this vaunted point, this actor is so recognizable that he poses the risk of filmgoers’ only seeing Tom Hanks — not the character — in any given film. Thankfully casting off any such fear, he believably becomes Sullenberger with a lived-in performance that perfectly captures the confidence and candor of our hero, white hairs and all.

When the Bough Breaks
Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall
*1/2 — Crock-a-Bye Baby
Detrimentally Obsessed with The Perfect Guy from Lakeview Terrace such that it amounts to a No Good Deed, this umpteenth urban take on Fatal Attraction plays out like an archly melodramatic TV Movie-of-the-Week on the big screen. In this PG-13-rated thriller, a surrogate mom (Jaz Sinclair) becomes dangerously obsessed with the soon-to-be father (Chestnut). Sure, Jack Olsen’s script tweaks the formula a bit, offering up the woman paid to carry a couple’s baby as the aggressive villain-type and giving her a sympathetic air. Trying to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge nugget of a plot point that her abusive boyfriend manipulated her into becoming a psycho only complicates an uncomplicated concept. This is a one-dimensional thriller and she’s a criminally insane baby mama — nobody’s feeling sorry for her. Think of it as The Heavy Hand That Rocks the Cradle. She traipses around in very little clothing and compromises a stalwart family man’s marriage, all the while threatening to keep or even — gasp — harm their baby. While some of these scenes could possibly elicit thrills, director Jon Cassar feels obliged to underscore these specific moments with an overpowering cacophony meant to hammer home the point that this is an ominous moment … as if all involved know that the story itself is incapable of doing this. Such histrionics quickly turn this intended thriller into a comedy, breaking balls when it should be breaking boughs.

Screens: Sept. 8, 2016

Screens: Sept. 8, 2016

Opening This Week

Sully
Tom Hanks, Anna Gunn
This PG-13-rated drama based on real events tells the story of Chesley Sullenberger (Hanks), the veteran pilot who became a hero after gliding his plane onto the water of the Hudson River, saving all of the 155 members and passengers.
The Plus: The players. Based on Brace for Impact, a memoir written by the actual Sullenberger, the screenplay builds drama not just from the actual “Miracle on the Hudson” (as it was called in the press), but also from the criticism leveled by the FAA at Sullenberger in the aftermath. Here, the legendary Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) directs two-time Oscar-winner Hanks (Bridge of Spies), Gunn (AMC’s Breaking Bad), Laura Linney (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows), Aaron Eckhart (London Has Fallen) and Jerry Ferrara (Starz’s Power).
The Minus: The odds. Eastwood’s post-Gran Torino CV raised more ho-hums (Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys) than huzzahs (Sniper). Also, Hanks reportedly jumped at the opportunity to work with Eastwood after filming back-to-back-back projects (Bridge of Spies, Hologram for the King and the forthcoming Inferno). Between the director’s spotty record and Hanks’ breakneck schedule, did anybody actually take the time to read and evaluate Todd Komarnicki’s adaptation of Sullenbeger’s book?

Jaz Sinclair;Morris Chestnut

When the Bough Breaks

Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall
In this PG-13-rated thriller, a surrogate mom (Jaz Sinclair) becomes dangerously obsessed with the soon-to-be father (Chestnut).
The Plus: The genre. As evinced by 2009’s Obsessed (earning $73 million on a $20 million budget) and 2014’s No Good Deed ($54 million vs. $13 million), urban obsession thrillers perform very well, particularly when starring African-American casts. Last September, The Perfect Guy, which also starred Chestnut (Fox’s Rosewood), went on to make $60 million on a budget of $12 million. This thriller stars Chestnut, Hall (Barbershop: The Next Cut), Sinclair (Paper Towns), Romany Malco (Amazon’s Mad Dogs) and Michael K. Williams (HBO’s The Night Of).
The Minus: The reviews. None of the urban thrillers listed above rated very well with critics. This will doubtlessly not effect When the Bough Breaks’ box office, but it bears mentioning.

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Now Playing

War Dogs
Jonah Hill, Miles Teller
*** — War is Hella Cool
Even with ace casting and an undeniably alluring catch-all of a true story, Todd Phillips’ most adult comedy to date nonetheless still feels the effects of his Hangover. In this R-rated comedy based on a true story, young guns David Packouz (Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Hill) win a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to arm America’s allies in Afghanistan. A very compelling read, Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” shows great potential in inspiring an equally compelling dramedy. Hopefully, that film will arrive someday. Until then, audiences have War Dogs, a flick that skews too close to the comedy as opposed to drama end of the dramedy spectrum, when it should fall dead in the middle. As a drama, it hits heavier than an Acme anvil. As a comedy, it carries less heft — a move in the right direction, mind you. This is to say that it’s way less broad than Phillips’s Road Trip and Old School, but you ultimately get the feeling that Phillips (along with his writing partners Stephen Cin and Jason Smilovic) really might think that war profiteering is supersexycool (even the poster art smacks of this, mirroring 1982’s Scarface — an ’80s classic remembered more for its cool gangster excess than as a morality tale). Indeed, Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing of Wall Street would’ve been a better title as the tone emulates the flashy tone of Martin Scorsese’s 2012 critical gem (which also starred Hill) without the proverbial a-ha! moment when you realize that you’ve been deliriously buzzing about the hive so long that you’re already hopelessly and dangerously stuck in the honey. If anything, the director’s latest troublingly hews closest in tone to 2010’s Due Date, a buddy comedy involving a selfish man-boy focused on making it home for the arrival of his first born. The serious side of War Dogs should hit much harder than that, but our heroes’ downfall lands with a thud during the climax, as if the screenwriters knew that they had to include a moral but really don’t believe in it. As with the Hangover series, a dead horse beat into a glue-like substance with two increasingly bad sequels in 2011 and 2013, the director at least has the benefit of great casting. The best part of this mediocre aping of Lord of War, War Dogs boasts the acting talent of Hill (Hail, Caesar!), Teller (Fantastic Four), Kevin Pollak (Special Correspondents), and yes, Bradley Cooper (Joy). Of course, “boasts” may be taking it a bit too far.

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The Light Between the Oceans
Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander
***1/2 — Wuthering Lows
A beautifully acted but woefully staged melodrama, bestseller adaptation The Light Between the Oceans tugs on the heart so frequently it qualifies as a pacemaker. In this PG-13-rated drama, a lighthouse keeper (Fassbender) and his wife (Vikander), living off the coast of Western Australia, raise a baby they rescue from an adrift rowboat. This drama makes for a handsome film, however, even when the trappings betray a sea of loneliness and despair … which is quite often. Derek Cianfrance knows how to frame depressed romantics perfectly by now, having given audiences the aptly titled, sour love note Blue Valentine and its equally dour follow-up, A Place Among the Pines. Here, the trappings make even more sense, setting the desolate tone appropriate to a couple passing the time as the only inhabitants of a small island between the Pacific and Indian oceans. And then, love comes in the form of a lovely young beacon of light in her own right, which is something this director also paints exceedingly well, with intimate, albeit heavy, brush strokes. That’s the thing with The Light Between the Oceans. If the touch were lighter, filmgoers might be looking at this year’s future best picture Oscar-winner. Instead, all involved feel their strings being pulled with great force and often. It stills packs an emotional punch but hints at the more nuanced version that could have resulted. Here, Cianfrance adapts M.L. Stedman’s popular novel as well as directs, so the maudlin tone and gratuitous puppetry simply go hand in hand. As with his choice of Ryan Gosling for his first two films, he chooses two powerful actors to breathe life into Stedman’s characters. Fassbender (Oscar nominated for 12 Years a Slave and Steve Jobs), Vikander (Oscar winner for The Danish Girl) and Rachel Weisz (Oscar winner for The Constant Gardener) bare their all, displaying every emotion like exposed live wires. It’s no surprise that the former two struck up a real-life relationship off-scree as well. Their romance is so palpable you occasionally don’t mind your strings being pulled … only occasionally, mind you.

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Mechanic: Resurrection
Jason Statham, Jessica Alba
** — Lock, Stock and Over a Barrel
Resurrecting a re-do of a remake that nobody asked for, always watchable Jason Statham makes a largely unnecessary return as the title character of an actioner that deals more with greased monkey business than a grease monkey. In this R-rated sequel to the 2011 actioner, Arthur Bishop (Statham) gets taken out of retirement and is forced to travel the globe to complete three impossible assassinations after his most formidable foe kidnaps the love of his life (Alba). Long considered a formidable actor whose projects fall well beneath his prodigious talents, many critics (this one included) definitely prefer the more serious side of Statham (Snatch, The Italian Job, The Bank Job) to his bankable stint as action and box office hero (The Transporter, Crank, Death Race), even when he’s playing second fiddle in an ensemble flick (The Expendables, Furious 7). The fact that he spoofs this latter persona so well in Spy only proves that we’re dealing with a master thespian here. But here we groan again, watching The Stath squint and kick baddies at a fully automatic clip for the umpteenth time. With Mechanic: Resurrection, consider him the smartest man in the dumbest room imaginable. Indeed, this deuce boasts some hard-charging and, at times, highly entertaining action sequences, but the story smacks of clichés and redundancy. In this sequel, he easily falls for Alba (Sin City: A Dame To Kill For), which is not only a set-up but one that he sees coming from a mile away. Not only is this movie mostly below this actor — it’s mostly below the audience. Statham’s Blitz (2012) went straight to video, and the actioners that followed probably should have followed suit (Killer Elite, Safe, Parker, Homefront). Hell, The Mechanic didn’t even make a profit until it opened worldwide, and that should have clued moviegoers into the fact that this trip goes nowhere for the most part. Even the standout action can’t save the fact that we’ve squinted, kicked and repeated once too often.

Screens: Sept, 1, 2016

Screens: Sept, 1, 2016

Opening This Week

Morgan
Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Johnson
In this R-rated horror flick, a corporate risk-management consultant has to decide and determine whether to terminate an artificial being’s life that was made in a laboratory environment.
The Plus: The genre. Horror fans rarely take a vacation. Whether, spring, fall, winter, or — yes — summer, they often show up to cinemas in spades. Indeed, some thriller franchises have a knack for scaring up boffo box office during the dog days (last month’s The Purge: Anarchy, last week’s Don’t Breathe). This feature directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke stars Mara (Fantastic Four), Taylor-Johnson (The Witch), Rose Leslie (HBO’s Game of Thrones), Toby Jones (Fox’s Wayward Pines), Michelle Yeoh (Mechanic: Resurrection), Brian Cox (Pixels), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Hateful Eight) and Paul Giamatti (Straight Outta Compton).
The Minus: The odds. Some thrillers don’t stand a ghost of a chance in the summer (this summer’s Clown).

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Don’t Breathe
Jane Levy, Stephen Lang
**** — Blind Man’s Bluff
An unrelenting exercise in white-knuckle terror, twist-filled home-invasion thriller Don’t Breathe proves so tense and terrifying that moviegoers’ nerves literally get shot to hell. And for a horror flick, that’s the highest form of praise indeed. In this R-rated thriller, a group of friends (Levy, et al) break into the house of a wealthy blind man (Lang), thinking they’ll get away with the perfect heist…only things go very wrong. Once these millennial burglars break into his abode, the thrills, nor your pulse, never let up. The story keeps twisting, the characters keep developing, the tension keeps building, and the scares keep coming. Despite a simple set-up and execution, Don’t Breathe is unexpectedly cerebral. Indeed, the movie smartly flips the home-invasion thriller — itself a sub-genre of horror — on its head, turning the tables on the invaders and the audience by proxy … and then back again. As a voyeur, you’re already hooked by this point because Rodo Sayagues and director Fede Alvarez’s script manages to dredge up a surprising amount of sympathy for the thieves, primarily Levy’s character. Having all worked together on the underrated 2013 remake of Evil Dead, Levy, Sayagues and Alvarez make a killer collective, evincing an understanding and love for the genre that deftly ratchets up the fear factor to a blood-curdling degree. All involved keep you guessing and uncomfortable, even the location. A haunting, sprawling and abandoned formerly tony suburb of Detroit provides the scene of the crime where this bloody game of attrition takes place. Sure, some of the plot points skew toward silliness, but moviegoers are already so beyond the edge of their seats by this point that no one really cares.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant
***1/2 — Lady Sings the Boos
Foster-ing a decent amount of laughs and emotion, Meryl Streep’s beautifully acted latest manages to carry an enjoyable and endearing heartsong even when the titular character fails to carry a tune. In this PG-13-rated dramedy based on the true story of Wilkes-Barre-born Jenkins, a New York heiress (Streep) finances her dream of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice. Florence Foster Jenkins is essentially a re-telling of The Emperor’s New Clothes based on real events. Well, make that somewhat real events. In an effort to be more crowd-pleasing than fact-based, Nicholas Martin’s screenplay makes for a fluffier bio pic than, say, stranger-than-fiction bio pics such as Ed Wood or The People vs. Larry Flynt. Zeroing in on a feel-good vibe, the dramedy rarely takes chances, but that end product definitely strikes the right chords, largely thanks to the A-grade cast. Perhaps you’ve heard of the woman billed by many as the greatest actress of her generation? Nominated for more Oscars than any thespian in history (19 and counting), Streep took home the prize three times — once for best supporting actress (Kramer Vs. Kramer) and twice for best actress (Sophie’s Choice, The Iron Lady). She’s guaranteed to nab her 20th nod for Florence Foster Jenkins in which she believably sings badly. While some filmgoers might think that it’s easy to warble poorly, they must consider that the actress is belting out “Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute with operatic bravado that occasionally comes THISclose to nailing it. Meeting her note for emotional note, if you’ll excuse the expression, is Hugh Grant, with a brilliantly nuanced performance of a man who undeniably loves her madly despite having a separate paramour on the side. Under the direction of Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena), the film provides a winning mix of drama and comedy in the dramedy equation even when the material veers too much toward the latter pole.

Hell or High Water
Chris Pine, Ben Foster
**** — Badlands to the Bone
A timely and rivetingly told tale that dead-sets its sights directly on a Blood Meridian, Chris Pine’s latest offers a modern western full of desperate measures and Texas-sized twists all told with uncompromising vision. In this R-rated crime drama, a divorced dad (Pine) and his ex-con brother (Foster) resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s farm in West Texas. First, let’s get the bad news out of the way. Some of both Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) screenplay and David Mackenzie’s (Young Adam) direction plays into heavy-handedness. In the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street housing crisis, banks make a particularly villainous enemy, and neither of these players ever lets you forget it. Even after this truth is practically written in blood on the screen at the outset, a supporting player spurts his hatred for such cheats, and a billboard spells out the same. Any audience lining up for a blistering, bloody and honest drama about stripped-to-the-bone men bled dryer than the East Texas plains is intelligent enough to get this notion without a hammer occasionally dropping down on their heads. Regardless, this is just a fly in the ointment of a story that rings true, heartfelt and often funny despite the bullet-ridden black cloud that hangs above the main characters. Seemingly (and smartly) emulating the work of Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road), Sheridan proves that his stellar work on Sicario was not just a one-off fluke. Brothers Toby and Tanner Howard’s world is bleak, and their morals are comprised, but their violent actions somehow always feel like the right measure. As realized by A-grade, lived-in performances from Pine and Foster, you root for these men unquestionably. Hell or High Water definitely provides inarguable proof that Pine is capable and bound for greater pastures than just being a leading man in blockbuster franchises (Star Trek, the forthcoming Wonder Woman) … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Jeff Bridges deserves special mention for delivering a turn as a weathered Texas Ranger nipping at retirement that doesn’t entirely feel like a re-tread of his work in True Grit.

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland (Season 4, PR Art). - Photo:  Jim Fiscus/SHOWTIME - Photo ID:  HomelandS4_PRArt_01.R

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in Homeland (Season 4, PR Art). – Photo: Jim Fiscus/SHOWTIME – Photo ID: HomelandS4_PRArt_01.R

Small Screens

Homeland — Seasons Four and Five (Showtime and Hulu)
Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin
****1/2 — Carrie On
Consider yourselves very lucky. You live in a time that many critics consider to be the Golden Age of television. Cable, pay cable and streaming services elevated the game to a ridiculously edifying plateau of quality and entertainment value, embracing more of a foreign (shorter seasons, arcing storytelling, uncompromised vision) than American network (longer seasons, repeats, editorial tinkering) standard that offers viewers an episodic cinematic experience that unfurls over 10 to 12 weeks on average. If The Shield and The Sopranos triggered the avalanche back at the turn of the century, then we’re now finding ourselves in a glacier effect, where so many eminent programs are changing the pop culture landscape that you (and your DVR, by proxy) has to be judicious in deciding what becomes appointment television and what goes on the backburner. It’s also become easy to drop a particular show if it craps the bed because there’s so many prime contenders nipping at its heels. When Homeland launched on Showtime in 2011, it got such gloriously perfect reviews (this reviewer included) that it was bound to fall off of the great wall of television. For this reviewer, it fell victim to such choosiness during the third season because the quality went from rating five to just below five stars. Just consider how ludicrous that sounds. If Homeland were a student, it basically got failed for achieving a B+ instead of an A+. A return to the program betrays the silliness in such rationale. Sure, during the third season, the writers wore out the initial premise a bit (Danes, as a bipolar CIA operative, becomes convinced a prisoner of war played by Damien Lewis has been turned by al-Qaeda and is planning to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil) and really tested the almost untetherable suspensions of our collected disbelief, but the program always proved absolutely gripping and showcased an amazingly palpable chemistry between its leads. Season four, in which Danes’ Carrie escapes her home obligations to run an embattled station in Taliban-filled Islamabad, changed up the format and found a renewed electricity and focus even though it sometimes felt like a more intelligent version of Fox’s 24. Season five, however, finds Homeland back atop the mantle, coming close and sometimes equaling the rarefied heights reached in the show’s inaugural year with a Berlin-set spy thriller that stands testament to the fact that Danes’s tour-de-force performance is an acting masterclass worthy of Emmy adoration every year.

Screens: Aug. 18, 2016

Screens: Aug. 18, 2016

Now Playing

Ben-Hur
Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell
In this PG-13-rated historical drama based on the classic novel by Lew Wallace, a wealthy Jewish merchant and prince (Huston) gets falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother (Kebbell), so he returns to his homeland to seek revenge but finds redemption instead.
The Plus: The players. Produced by Mark Burnett (CBS’s Survivor) and Roma Downey (CBS’s Touched by an Angel), the team that brought the hit cable docudramas The Bible and A.D.: The Bible Continues to the small screen, Ben-Hur is a big-budget ($100 million) and (somewhat) star-studded biblical epic in the spirit of, er, Ben-Hur. In a recent article for Variety, however, the producers promised that this version will be different from William Wyler’s 1959 Oscar-winning classic starring Charlton Heston. Here, Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer) directs Huston (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Kebbell (Warcraft), Rodrigo Santoro (Focus) and Morgan Freeman (Now You See Me 2).
The Minus: The odds. In 2014 alone, two Bible story re-tellings — Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings — underwhelmed both critics and filmgoers.

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War Dogs
Jonah Hill, Miles Teller
In this R-rated comedy based on a true story, young guns David Packouz (Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Hill) win a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to arm America’s allies in Afghanistan.
The Plus: The players. After building a respectable CV of successful raunchy comedies that included Road Trip, Old School and Starsky & Hutch, writer-director Todd Phillips hit blockbusterdom with 2009’s The Hangover, which went on to unseat Beverly Hills Cop as the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time (Deadpool now holds the spot) and helped to usher Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) into superstardom. Unfortunately, aside from 2010’s Due Date, he beat this dead horse into a glue-like substance with two increasingly bad sequels in 2011 and 2013 before concentrating on the small screen by executive producing CBS’s Limitless with Cooper. Now, he returns to the big screen with War Dogs, which boasts the acting talent of Hill (Hail, Caesar!), Teller (Fantastic Four), Kevin Pollak (Special Correspondents) and, yes, Cooper (Joy).
The Minus: The odds. Even with R-rated comedy veterans Zac Efron and Robert De Niro on-board, Dirty Grandpa failed miserably earlier this year.

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Sausage Party

Voices of Seth Rogen, Kristin Wiig
**** — Wiener Wiener, Chicken Dinner
Highly offensive but thankfully also highly hilarious, Seth Rogen and company’s smorgasbord of raunchy adult animation boasts enough gags, lines and – most surprising of all – story to bring out the inner food fetish in moviegoers who thought cartoons were just for kids. In this R-rated animated comedy, a sausage (Rogen) strives to discover the truth about his existence. Someway, somehow, the minds behind The Interview pulled it off. Oh, it’s not the dirty comedy angle of this statement that proves shocking (this is, after all, the twosome that also gave us A-grade potty mouth hilarity with Superbad and This Is the End). It’s the dirty cartoon angle that defies logic. Aside from 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, audiences haven’t really had the opportunity to dip their toes in this water (beyond South Park, moviegoers can count the X-rated 1972 oddity Fritz the Cat, which was based on the R. Crumb comic strip character). Think about this union. Time (The Hangover), time (Bridesmaids) and time again (21 Jump Street), adults-only laugh-getters have rightly achieved blockbuster status. Also, time (Pixar: Inside Out, Finding Dory) and time (Dreamworks Animation: Home, Kung Fu Panda 3) and time again (Illumination Entertainment: Minions, The Secret Life of Pets), animated films have struck a very profitable and agreeable chord with older moviegoers dragged to the cinema by their kids. But bringing these seemingly opposite poles together?! Yet, it works exceedingly well. The success of Sausage Party, however, lies in emulating the strengths of both poles. Rogen, along with his writing and producing partner Evan Goldberg and two other scribes, follows the Pixar/Dreamworks formula while clocking in more F-bombs than dollar draft night at a sailor’s bar. The usually inanimate items of food – like playthings in Toy Story or the animals in The Secret Lives of Pets – take on life-like personalities that gain your sympathies and go on a quest to find something — in this case, what lies beyond the supermarket. Developing the personalities a step further, the screenwriters mold the characters around ethnic foods, which brings a lot of topical race-based humor into play. In a society where we expressly avoid zingers such as those leveled here by raising children like veal and routinely dishing out sensitivity training like it was an airline safety demo, this Party truly feels quite welcoming. Everybody gets skewered, and everybody does the skewering, but they somehow have enough of a backbone (or food item equivalent) to work together and carry on. Perhaps it’s their outrageous horniness and libido that bring them together. Indeed, sexual and sophomoric humor runs rampant. Still, with letter-perfect voices by such adult comedy veterans as Rogen (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), Wiig (Ghostbusters), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Bill Hader (Trainwreck), Michael Cera (This Is the End), James Franco (The Interview), Danny McBride (Masterminds), Craig Robinson (Hot Tub Time Machine), Paul Rudd (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Edward Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Salma Hayek (Savages), only the most prudish of moviegoers will be put off.

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Suicide Squad

Will Smith, Jared Leto
** — Jailhouse Crock
Suicide Squad, the latest in DC’s feeble bid to make Marvel-ous films, boasts a promising start and masterful casting but seems to take on suicidal tendencies as it quickly descends into supernatural phooey and tired formula. In this PG-13-rated comic book adaptation, a secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency. About 15 minutes in, you think to yourself: “This is pretty kick ass.” About 1 hour and 15 minutes in, you think to yourself: “Well, they just screwed that all to hell.” Threaded from the hole-ridden, rightly trampled-upon tapestry known as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad intends to extend the DC Comics film universe further but really just chums the same waters for moviegoers. Dark and cynical whereas Marvel Studios is usually colorful and sarcastic, the flick is obviously part of the same overall DC Films brand, but its overall appeal to moviegoers remains dubious and, frankly, nebulous. The set-up presented in the first act grabs and holds your attention while the action proves intense throughout, but all of the grit and spit of these decent moments get traded in for routine storytelling and a villain that’s more ho-hum than hoo-rah. Speaking of which, everybody loves a villain … well, not every villain. Placed smack dab in the center of the story and letter perfectly realized by Margot Robbie and Will Smith (respectively), Harley Quinn and Deadshot emerge as favorites (aside from the brilliant Viola Davis, who nearly steals the show as their nefarious handler) even when the script starts to turn their sympathetic characters into stock characters. Jared Leto’s hip hop, tatted-up Joker, meanwhile, is hypnotic to watch but almost instantly gets relegated to third-tier status. The rest of the Squad receive obligatory monologues meant to wring tears from the audience, but the audience feels its strings being deliberately pulled with an overlong bout of sob stories before moving on to a lackluster big bad showdown, a rather boring bit of witchery atop a skyscraper a la Zuul in Ghostbusters. Writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) has the audience eating out of his hands at the outset but soon gives in to following a recipe for a dish of leftovers called mismatched-teammates-learning-to-work-together. 

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Small Screens

Narcos
Wagner Moura, Boyd Holbrook
***1/2 – Drug Cultured
Netflix’s original drama series tells the true-life story of notorious Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar (Moura) and Steve Murphy (Holbrook), a DEA agent sent to Colombia on a U.S. mission to capture and ultimately kill him. Narcos makes for interesting viewing. We’re not talking addictive must-watch television here — just gripping enough to hold your interest over 10 episodes. The story behind Escobar’s rise and fall proves engrossing enough just based on the facts alone, and the writer’s room knows this well. For better and worse, Narcos sticks to the facts just enough. The better: Brisk, brutal, and bloody, the series rarely feels unnecessarily padded (Holbrook’s voiceover narration thankfully becomes less intrusive as the show progresses). The worse: No character emerges as particularly likeable. In fact, as much as DEA agent Murphy gets pushed to the forefront as a main character at the outset, the show quickly turns into a double act and, ultimately, Escobar somehow becomes our eyes and ears in this world. Based on this, the fact-based climax, though invigorating to watch, leaves the audience in a bit of a quandary given this focus pull. Still, co-creators and producers by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro did their casting well and smartly film on location in Colombia — itself a compelling and beguiling enough character.

Screens: Aug. 4, 2016

Screens: Aug. 4, 2016

Opening This Week

Suicide Squad
Will Smith, Jared Leto
In this PG-13-rated DC comic adaptation, a secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency. The Plus: Franchise potential. After seeing rival outfit Marvel Comics storm the box office again (X-Men, X2: X-Men United) and again (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2), director Christopher Nolan pulled off the near impossible for DC Comics, reinventing Batman with his critical and commercially successful Dark Knight trilogy. In 2013, he returned to the DC universe as the producer of Man of Steel, a reboot of an iconic character last seen in 2006’s Superman Returns. With the hugely divisive but very profitable sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Brothers spun off both characters into a superhero team-up called Justice League much in the way that Marvel Studios spun Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor and their sequels into The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. They also spun off a super-villain team-up, culled from the popular comic title Suicide Squad. Here, David Ayer (Fury) directs Smith (Focus) as Deadeye, Leto (The Dallas Buyers Club) as the Joker, Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Harley Quinn, Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop) as Rick Flag, Viola Davis (ABC’s How I Got Away with Murder) as Amanda Waller, Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys) as Boomerang, Jay Hernandez (Takers) as El Diablo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Concussion) as Killer Croc, Ike Barinholtz (Neighbors), Scott Eastwood (The Longest Ride) and Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as Enchantress, as well as reported cameos by Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) as Batman and Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me 2) as Lex Luthor. The Minus: The gamble. Divisive was putting it mildly. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice currently has an average rating of 28 percent on Rotten tomatoes. DC Comics’ filmic record certainly sports more dark nights (Catwoman, Green Lantern) than Dark Knights, which means that Suicide Squad has a lot to prove.


Nine Lives

Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Garner
In this PG-rated family comedy, a stuffy businessman (Spacey) finds himself trapped inside the body of his family’s cat. The Plus: The players. Remember Barry Sonnefeld, the director of such edgy, dark, star-studded and oftentimes critically hailed comedies The Addams Family, Get Shorty and Men in Black? No, neither does ec, but he’s climbed aboard this flick that sounds like an unwelcome twist on the Disney classic The Shaggy Dog. Luckily, misery loves company, and someway somehow Spacey (Netflix’s House of Cards), Garner (Miracles from Heaven), Robbie Amell (The CW’s The Flash), Cheryl Hines (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Christopher Walken (The Jungle Book) also star. The Minus: Please see “The Plus.”

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Now Playing

Nerve
Emma Roberts, Dave Franco
*** — Dot Coma
Sporting a crackerjack premise that’s as cracked up as it is jacked in to the social media scene, this teen-friendly thriller shows a lot of nerve but not nearly as much brains. In this PG-13-rated mystery, a high school senior (Roberts) finds herself and another online personality (Franco) immersed in an online game of truth or dare, where her every move starts to become manipulated by an anonymous community of “watchers.” Just as Unfriended capitalized on our small screen-obsessed lives to deliver an original and timely horror flick, Nerve accomplishes nearly the same with about as much success. Watching young, beautiful people go about accepting death defying challenges for the dubious glory of Facebook-type “Likes” and Internet fame does present a fascinating set-up. Call it Internet daring. Also, notice the word “dubious” as the movie also tries to deliver a message, as in this 15-minute faceless adulation might seem like friendly activity but actually falls far from it. Just as the flick tries to zero in on our accelerated, disconnected society as the major talking point, so too is the movie’s execution accelerated and disconnected. For every ho-hum stunt performed during the course of the 90-minute film, there is another exciting distraction right around the corner. This works for better and worse as not every challenge proves as thrilling as the next, but the turnaround is quick enough to keep moviegoers somewhat vested … somewhat. The simpleton story is threaded through frequent action set pieces, which means that it falls on the cast to really sell audiences on the low-gear story. Thankfully, just like the minor social media celebrities they portray, Roberts and Franco reel you in with believable chemistry from the get-go.

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Jason Bourne
Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander
***1/2 — Identity Theft
Bourne back ceaselessly to the past, Matt Damon’s return to the spy series that made him a superstar smartly adapts a Snowden-inspired storyline and requisite pulse-pounding action set pieces but troublingly sometimes feels like Deja Woo all over again. In this R-rated continuation of the hit espionage series, Jason Bourne (Damon), now remembering who he truly is, unexpectedly resurfaces at a time when the world is faced with unprecedented instability. Despite the titular character’s story arc getting wrapped up satisfyingly with The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne mines a very plausible and undeniably engaging follow-up. Being an amnesia-plagued government assassin looking for answers defined both Bourne the man and Bourne the franchise, seemingly closing the door to more hitman-on-the-run chapters … except the death of novelist/Bourne creator Robert Ludlum never stopped the progression of this character (writer Eric Van Lustbader went on to write eight more Bourne novels and counting) … and the books only ever stood for extremely loose frameworks on which to build the film adaptations anyway … and watching a Bourne flick without Matt Damon (2012’s The Bourne Legacy with Jeremy Renner) proved about as exciting as watching The Fugitive without Harrison Ford (1998’s U.S. Marshalls) —serviceable as entertainment but hardly as effective a thriller. Here, we find forever-patriot Bourne having wrestled his past (David Webb, conscripted into the memory-wiping Treadstone Program) but restless so far as determining a future in a deadly world of constant security breaches and terrorism. Thankfully, a catalyst forces the issue when series holdover Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) shows up on screen as a sort of Snowden-esque whistleblower. Some very welcome new additions in the form of Vikander (The Danish Girl) as a government liaison, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) as a rival assassin and Tommy Lee Jones (Criminal) as an old-school bureaucrat truly springboard us onto these intriguing new roads, which mostly prove to be the furthest thing from an obligatory sequel … mostly. The best and worst thing about Jason Bourne is the fact that Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) returns to direct his third go-round in the franchise with Damon. They also co-wrote the story, however. As ridiculously invigorating as the action scenes are (a vehicle chase through the Las Vegas Strip challenges even Bourne Ultimatum’s New York City-set demolition derby), the all-too-familiar threads of Bourne getting pulled into a globe-trotting search for truth against a nefarious government begins to wear thin with this chapter. The ending sets up a tantalizing new possibility, but you fear that one more repeat of this recipe will result in The Bourne Eulogy.

Bad Moms
Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell
***1/2 — The Kids are Aah-ite
A Bad comedy that actually delivers on its premise with hilariousness and heart to spare, Moms definitely knows best in the laugh-deprived doldrums of summer. In this R-rated comedy, when three overworked and under-appreciated moms (Kunis, Bell, Kathryn Hahn) are pushed beyond their limits, they ditch their conventional responsibilities for a jolt of long overdue freedom, fun and comedic self-indulgence. Time (The Hangover), time (Bridesmaids) and time again (21 Jump Street), adults-only laugh-getters have achieved blockbuster status with good reason. In the grand (if not always critically, then definitely in terms of box office) tradition of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa comes Bad Moms, a laugh-riot that doesn’t show all of its best parts in the trailer for multiple reasons. First of all, much of the material is too gloriously raunchy to get the thumbs up for network broadcast. Second of all, a 30-second spot or one-minute can’t convey that this comedy is a deeper thinker than the title lets on. When you see the impossibly young and beautiful Mila Kunis dressed to the corporate nines as the seemingly perfect wife and mother having a Bad day, it’s merely a set up. Of course, she doesn’t represent the norm. It’s actually a big plot point that she got married way too young (20) and that she’s trying way too hard at being perfect (she’s not high-powered but dresses like it, which is another joke). Plus, there are all types of mothers represented in this melee that show that parenting is a far from perfect practice. Sure, there are boob and partying jokes aplenty as well, but Bad Moms actually makes a point and makes it well. It helps that some raunchy comedy vets help to deliver both the gags and message to great effect. Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (21 & Over), the cast includes such R-rated comedy veterans as Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Bell (The Boss), Christina Applegate (Anchorman), Kathryn Hahn (Bad Words), Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL), Annie Mumolo (This Is 40), Wanda Sykes (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm), Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine) and Jay Hernandez (the forthcoming Suicide Squad). It certainly bends to formula at times, but the overall Badness certainly deserves a look … or two.

Screens: July 28, 2016

Screens: July 28, 2016

Opening This Week

Jason Bourne
Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander
In this R-rated continuation of the hit espionage series, Jason Bourne (Damon), now remembering who he truly is, unexpectedly resurfaces at a time when the world is faced with unprecedented instability.
The Plus:
 The franchise. The 21st century didn’t start out so well for the one of the biggest movie stars in the world. After winning a best original screenplay Oscar with Ben Affleck for Good Will Hunting and then starring in a string of hits through 1999 (Saving Private Ryan, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Dogma), Matt Damon hit a bit of a rough box office patch with projects that seemed like sure things (All the Pretty Horses, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Majestic). It was two franchises, however, that put him back on sure H’Wood footing: 2001’s Oceans Eleven and 2002’s The Bourne Identity. In this continuation of the Bourne series, Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) returns to direct his third go-round in the franchise with Damon (The Martian), Vikander (The Danish Girl), Julia Stiles (Closed Circuit), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), and Tommy Lee Jones (Criminal).
The Minus: The gamble. The previous Bourne chapter with Damon, Ultimatum, bowed in 2007—nearly a decade ago. The follow-up without Damon, 2012’s Legacy, underwhelmed both critics and moviegoers. The fact that Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), writer-director of that chapter and screenwriter of every other film in the franchise, doesn’t return for Jason Bourne speaks poorly for this flick. Every Bourne film was at least loosely based on a book in Robert Ludlum’s series, but the latest’s decision to go it alone hints of a Bourne Eulogy.

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Bad Moms
Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell
In this R-rated comedy, when three overworked and under-appreciated moms (Kunis, Bell, Kathryn Hahn) are pushed beyond their limits, they ditch their conventional responsibilities for a jolt of long overdue freedom, fun and comedic self-indulgence.
The Plus: The genre. Time (The Hangover), time (Bridesmaids) and time again (21 Jump Street), adults-only laugh-getters have achieved blockbuster status. In the grand (if not critically, then definitely in terms of box office) tradition of Bad Santa, Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa comes Bad Moms, a gloriously raunchy comedy written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (21 & Over). The cast includes such R-rated comedy veterans as Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Bell (The Boss), Christina Applegate (Anchorman), Hahn (Bad Words), Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL), Annie Mumolo (This Is 40), Wanda Sykes (HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm), Clark Duke (Hot Tub Time Machine) and Jay Hernandez (the forthcoming Suicide Squad).
The Minus: The material. Everybody loves an R-rated comedy …well, apparently not everybody. Even with R-rated comedy veterans Zac Efron and Robert De Niro on-board, Dirty Grandpa failed miserably in the doldrums of February.

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Now Playing

Star Trek Beyond
Chris Pine, Idris Elba
***1/2 — Keep on Trekking
Moving Beyond the alternate universe construct that quickly pushed this once promising extension of the iconic series Into Darkness, the latest Star Trek sticks close to the Men-on-a-Mission design of the classic series and provides an action-packed chapter that still includes some appropriate emotional beats. Unless steeped in a Blu-Ray marathon from the confines of your own stardeck, one forgets the fun and physical abandon of the original series, which ran from 1966-69 on CBS. Oh, viewers remember how progressive and cerebral the program is because these are the buzz words usually put forth by the critics and entertainment reporters looking to summarize the importance of a sci-fi program that played well more than just in the geek fringes, attracting fans everywhere from Pluto to Peoria. But there was also sex and shootouts. Star Trek Beyond, more than any entry yet between the original crew or their newer doppelgängers, emulates this winning template of a smarty pants story played out as an exciting romp. This is not to say that the film achieves excellence. For better and worse, this tale at times feels inconsequential to the overall story arc of the new series. The first two chapters were overburdened with making seismic shifts to the canon (Star Trek was a retooled origin tale while Star Trek Into Darkness poorly reworked the storyline from the older film series’ best, Wrath of Khan). Here, you get a rousing sci-fi adventure that, save for some minor details, changes little in the spectrum. In fact, if you’re watching the new film series in total and trying to keep it in perspective with the original, you could pretty much skip Beyond and still keep on track with the characters and their five-year mission. But you shouldn’t. For all of the lazy writing of the last go-round, the straight-ahead storytelling and little earthquakes (one character gets a send-off while another gets a very welcome development) on display in the latest show Star Trek at its best. Oh, and there’s sex and shootouts. With a returning cast in top form alongside Idris Elba’s scene-stealing villainous performance, filmgoers would be hard-pressed not to enjoy this thrill-ride. Under the interstellar direction of Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 8) their latest search for new life and civilizations boldly proves more of an out-and-out action movie but the heaviness of the previous misfire is thankfully gone. 

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Ghostbusters
Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig
**1/2 — Boo Who?
A decent comedy nearly busted down and out by the ghost of the modern classic on which it is based, Ghostbusters scares up quite a few laughs, but never enough to vanquish the specter of the original. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi comedy re-do from director Paul Feig, a team of scientists (McCarthy, Wiig, Kate McKinnon) and a NY transit worker (Leslie Jones) team up to combat an outbreak of paranormal activity. To its credit, an impressive number of the jokes and gags connect, but only a few feel central to the story ­— just tailored to fit it as if picked up from the cutting room floor of other Feig/McCarthy comedies such as The Heat. Those that do hit a bullseye (their hunky dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers receptionist, Jones slapping a poltergeist out of her co-worker … and then continuing the slapping) almost make this production worth the hoopla. At the end of the day, however, this Ghostbusters is a remake … and not a particularly great one. The 1984 film nonetheless hangs like an albatross around its neck. Even the very familiar plot points (angry mayor, a geeky vessel for an otherworldly demon, a giant puffy big bad) weigh down this comedy’s chances of truly distinguishing itself apart from 1984’s Ghostbusters, as do some inconsequential cameos from the original cast (minus Harold Ramis, who died in 2014) that merely fan the flames of the reunion that could’ve been more than warms audiences to the new kid in town. It’s an impossible feat to shake off its predecessor as it rightly ranks as one of the AFI’s top 100 comedies of all-time (No. 28 if you’re keeping score), and any attempt to soldier on without linking the two generations is a mistake. Feig tries anyway, however. The writer-director is simply a stronger scenarist (Maid of Honor from Hell! McCarthy in a Spy flick!) than writer. From the simplistic connect-the-dots framework to caricatures as opposed to characters, Ghostbusters version 2.0 — as funny as it is at times — is just not a strong enough movie on its own merits. For example, McKinnon is quirky and just invents mind-bending equipment on the fly, but, as fun and scene-stealing as her performance ends up to be, no one’s really buying her actions. The original film owned everything it put out there, meanwhile, including the pop science. Speaking of casting, however, no production could ask for a better and more talented roster of comedians. Despite the jokes and gags they sail through like master comics, they’re simply pushing the proverbial Sisyphus stone. Frustratingly, Hemsworth’s character and performance as the aforementioned receptionist is Ghostbusters’ most original stroke of comic brilliance, which is not good for a movie that’s wrongly attracted sexist vitriol.

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Small Screens

Irrational Man (2015)
Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone
**1/2 — Psycho Babel
In this R-rated thriller, a tormented philosophy professor (Phoenix) considers murdering a corrupt judge to find meaning in his life. Come for the philosophical quandaries capitulated by one of cinema’s most prolific and thought-provoking filmmakers, stay for the performances. You’d think that Woody Allen, the auteur who already gave us middle-age existential crisis and murder mystery aplenty in films ranging from Interiors to Crimes and Misdemeanors to Match Point (among countless others), could deftly combine the two with better results in Irrational Man, a film with an amazing set-up but not enough of the things that make you go hmmm. He tantalizes audiences with the story of a suicidal philosopher who finds meaning and happiness in planning the perfect murder, but the study of the fundamental nature of existence and meaning boils down to Philosophy for Dummies. Just consider the mind-blowing possibilities of a man well steeped in Spinoza’s Ethics trying to debate the purpose of and then executing a thinking man’s homicide based on this pretzel logic. Fascinating, right? OK, so the main character prefers to Heidegger and Kant to Spinoza, but the intellectual enticement remains the same. Sadly, Irrational Man plays out more as a crime and love story than existential tale. We’ve seen both already from Allen, and done much better. Still, even mediocre work by this writer-director holds more entertainment value and thought provocation than even the best output of some other filmmakers. After nearly 50 films, he still exhibits an almost uncanny mutant ability for making letter-perfect casting choices. On paper, Abe comes off as a troubled man who teaches advanced philosophy while himself only operating at a philosophy 101 level, but a brooding and bloated performance by Phoenix betrays a much more complex man. The writing might not make you believe the existential quagmires at stake, but this talented actor nearly sells filmgoers on the bigger picture. Meeting him beat for emotional beat, Stone operates as a moral compass whose candor and sympathetic heart ground this fair-to-middling thriller.

Screens: July 21, 2016

Screens: July 21, 2016

Opening This Week


Star Trek Beyond
Chris Pine, Idris Elba
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi sequel … well, we don’t really know what happens as the plot is still being kept secret at this time.
The Plus: The franchise. Sci-fi is huge business in H’Wood and not just for geeks. The modern-day gangbuster success of classics like Star Trek, Star Wars and BBC’s Doctor Who stand testament to the fact that this genre no longer sits in the fringes shouldered with a cult status. And much of its success has to do with J.J. Abrams. After executive-producing two of television’s biggest hits of the 2000s (Fox’s Alias and ABC’s Lost), he turned his attention to film directing with Mission: Impossible III (the fact that he went on to produce the franchise’s best chapters, Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, certainly only helps this argument). After the blockbuster success of 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, however, he got handed the keys to possibly the greatest sci-fi series of all-time: Star Wars. Last year’s The Force Awakens remains the all-time domestic box office champ and a critical darling. Now, he returns to Gene Roddenberry’s Trek franchise as producer. Here, Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6) directs returning crew members Pine (The Finest Hours), Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy), Zachary Quinto (Hitman: Agent 47), Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Karl Urban (Riddick), John Cho (Identity Thief) and Anton Yelchin (Green Room) join newbies Elba (The Jungle Book) and Sofia Boutella (Kingsmen: The Secret Service).
The Minus: early buzz. Remember, Abrams only returns to produce, not direct. The movie’s first trailer proved divisive with fans of the series, Beyond star and co-writer Pegg included (according to many news outlets). The fact that the flick counts five writers in total (joining Pegg are Doug Jung, Roberto Orci, John D. Payne and Patrick McCay) is certainly not a good sign as to the story’s quality (the fact that it’s still being kept a secret only compounds this uncertainty). Too many cooks …well, you know.

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Ice Age: Collision Course
Ray Romano, John Leguizamo
In this PG-rated animated family flick (and fifth in the series if you’re counting), Manny (Romano), Diego (Denis Leary) and Sid (Leguizamo) join up with Buck to fend off a meteor strike that would destroy the world.
The Plus: The franchise. Fourteen years ago, 20th Century Fox found it had a mammoth blockbuster on its hands when the family ‘toon Ice Age (2002) became an overnight hit. Meltdown (2006), Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) and Continental Drift (2012) gave audiences more of the same, but banged even more buck out of the box office, all nearly breaking the $200 million mark in the U.S. alone. Now, nearly 15 years on from the original, Fox is hoping for a five-peat when Collision Course hits theaters. Joining series holdovers Romano (HBO’s Vinyl), Leguizamo (The Infiltrator), Queen Latifah (Miracles from Heaven), Leary (FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll), Seann William Scott (American Reunion), Wanda Sykes (Evan Almighty), Jeremy Renner (Captain America: Civil War), Jennifer Lopez (The Boy Next Door), Aziz Ansari (Netflix’s Master of None) and KeKe Palmer (Fox’s Scream Queens) join series newbies Simon Pegg (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Adam Devine (Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (ABC’s Modern Family), Max Greenfield (Fox’s New Girl), Jessie J (Fox’s Grease Live!), Nick Offerman (FX’s Fargo) and Melissa Rauch (CBS’s Big Bang Theory).
The Minus: The competition. Not always a fan of critics, the Ice Age series now has to contend with a market that either ekes out sequels at a much slower pace (Finding Dory) or capitalizes on a new landscape altogether (Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets). Though quite profitable, Continental Drift earned less than its predecessor, Dawn of the Dinosaurs … but that was four years ago.

Now Playing

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Ghostbusters
Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig
**1/2 — Boo Who?
A decent comedy nearly busted down and out by the ghost of the modern classic on which it is based, Ghostbusters scares up quite a few laughs but never enough to vanquish the specter of the original. In this PG-13-rated sci-fi comedy re-do from director Paul Feig, a team of scientists (McCarthy, Wiig, Kate McKinnon) and a NY transit worker (Leslie Jones) team up to combat an outbreak of paranormal activity. To its credit, an impressive number of the jokes and gags connect, but only a few feel central to the story ­— just tailored to fit it as if picked up from the cutting room floor of other Feig/McCarthy comedies such as The Heat. Those that do hit a bullseye (their hunky dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers receptionist, Jones slapping a poltergeist out of her co-worker … and then continuing the slapping) almost make this production worth the hoopla. At the end of the day, however, this Ghostbusters is a remake … and not a particularly great one. Whether or not the demon Zuul makes an appearance or the name Dr. Peter Venkman pops up is immaterial. The 1984 film nonetheless hangs like an albatross around its neck. Even the very familiar plot-points (angry mayor, a geeky vessel for an otherworldly demon, a giant puffy big bad) weigh down this comedy’s chances of truly distinguishing itself apart from 1984’s Ghostbusters, as do some inconsequential cameos from the original cast (minus Harold Ramis, who died in 2014) that merely fan the flames of the reunion that could’ve been more than warms audiences to the new kid in town. It’s an impossible feat to shake off its predecessor as it rightly ranks as one of the AFI’s top 100 comedies of all-time (No. 28 if you’re keeping score), and any attempt to soldier on without linking the two generations is a mistake. Feig tries anyway, however. The writer-director is simply a stronger scenarist (Maid of Honor from Hell! McCarthy in a Spy flick!) than writer. We’re living in an era where nostalgia sequels — follow-ups that are reverential to the past while moving the story forward with new players — are ruling the day and box office (Jurassic World, Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). He wrongly chose not to pass the torch from cast to cast. In his defense, Jurassic World, Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens all hit theaters after production on Ghostbusters began, so it was just a creative gamble — not seemingly borne of arrogance. From the simplistic connect-the-dots framework to caricatures as opposed to characters, Ghostbusters version 2.0 — as funny as it is at times — is just not a strong enough movie on its own merits. For example, Kate McKinnon is quirky and just invents mind-bending equipment on the fly, but, as fun and scene-stealing as her performance ends up to be, no one’s really buying her actions. The original film owned everything it put out there, meanwhile, including the pop science. Speaking of casting, however, no production could ask for a better and more talented roster of comedians. Despite the jokes and gags they sail through like master comics, they’re simply pushing the proverbial Sisyphus stone. Frustratingly, Hemsworth’s character and performance as the aforementioned receptionist is Ghostbusters’ most original stroke of comic brilliance, which is not good for a movie that’s wrongly attracted sexist vitriol.

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The Infiltrator
Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo
***1/2 — Miami Vice Versa
Breaking Blow much more than Bad, Bryan Cranston continues an impressive H’Wood run in a slick-looking drug drama that only occasionally matches his immeasurable talent. In this R-rated crime thriller based on the autobiography by Robert Mazur, a U.S. Customs official (Cranston) uncovers a money-laundering scheme involving Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Though this “true story” about going undercover plays out like Donnie Brasco, the look and style of this fish-out-water crime thriller more closely resembles the 2001 Ted Demme-directed period piece name-checked above: Blow. Likewise based on real events, that project also emulated style over substance while capitalizing on a mesmerizing lead performance. Indeed, at times, the pedestrian dialogue of The Infiltrator seems culled from episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger. Still, all the while, director Brad Furman smartly lets the cinematography, set design, costumes and soundtrack rock on at an “11,” oblivious to the arch mustache-twirling lines spoken amid the splendor. There’s no denying the lure of this being a true story, however, especially when realized by such powerful performances, chiefly the lead. Since hanging up his yellow hazmat suit as high school chemistry teacher-turned drug kingpin Walter White on AMC’s modern classic drama Breaking Bad, Cranston has had an amazing second act as H’Wood star. Formerly known mostly for playing the father on Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, his Emmy award-winning turn on Bad led to roles in the Oscar-winning Argo, as well as a Broadway run as President Lyndon Johnson in All the Way, which netted the actor the Tony award for best actor in a play. For 2015’s Trumbo, he received his first Academy Award nomination. He won’t gain a second nomination here, but his turn as undercover Bob defies you to look away. You won’t.

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Small Screens

The Knick – Season 2 (2015)
Clive Owen, Andre Holland
**** — Young Doctors in Blood
In this adults-only Cinemax original medical drama set in the early 1900s, the staff (Holland, Eve Hewson, et al) of a New York hospital struggle to maintain their reputation and make advancements while a brand-new facility gets built and their chief surgeon (Owen) recovers from drug treatment. Frustrating is the word for The Knick. This definitely doesn’t refer to the quality, mind you, but to the simple sad fact that this addictive pot-boiler hasn’t caught on like so many overrated cable dramas (Penny Dreadful, Peaky Blinders). The fact that Steven freakin’ Soderbergh (Sex, Lies & Videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike) directs every episode of this hypnotic period medical drama is reason enough to clear your DVR and binge-watch every tantalizing moment. Indeed, from the fascinating choice of angles to use of gaslight and candlelight to light some scenes, every scene is as alluring and gripping as the drama it documents. Sure, said drama courts unbelievability at times as it challenges the mores of the time like a bulldozer (hey, we all wish there was more racial and feminist equality back then, but the fact is it was just a frustratingly less accepting time), but it only serves to point up the topical tension erupting all around our country today. There are many disturbing (read: gorier than torture porn) moments in The Knick, but these incidents don’t exist as pure shock theater. Dramatizing the headway made in surgery at the dawn of the 20th century, the program opens your eyes as much as your sensibilities. Thankfully, it has a cast talented enough to sell its crackerjack premise. More of an ensemble than season one, the storyline flirts with soap operatic highs near the end of its 10-episode run but ends up to be the furthest extreme from General Hospital.

Screens: July 14, 2016

Screens: July 14, 2016

Opening This Week

Ghostbusters
Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig
In this PG-13-rated sci-fi comedy, a team of scientists (McCarthy, Wiig, Kate McKinnon) and a New York transit worker (Leslie Jones) team up to combat an outbreak of paranormal activity.
The Plus: The name. 1984’s Ghostbusters ranks as one of the AFI’s Top 100 Comedies of All-Time (No. 28 if you’re keeping score). We’re living in an era where nostalgia sequels – follow-ups that are reverential to the past while moving the story forward with new players — are ruling the day and box office (Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). With original ’busters Bill Murray (Rock the Kasbah), Dan Aykroyd (Pixels) and Ernie Hudson (God’s Not Dead), as well as their co-stars Sigourney Weaver (Chappie) and Annie Potts (NBC’s Chicago Med), set to return, this trend just might continue. Here, under the direction of Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat), they’re joined by McCarthy (Spy), Wiig (The Martian), McKinnon (Finding Dory), Jones (NBC’s Saturday Night Live), Chris Hemsworth (Captain America: Civil War), Charles Dance (HBO’s Game of Thrones), Elizabeth Perkins (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II) Andy Garcia (Let’s Be Cops), Michael Kenneth Williams (Triple 9) and Cecily Strong (The Boss).
The Minus: Early buzz. The first trailer for this comedy garnered more dislikes on YouTube than any other movie promo in the website’s history. Even McCarthy publicly dissed it as “confusing.” With Ghostbusters reportedly a reboot as opposed to nostalgia sequel (despite cameos by the original stars), perhaps more vitriol is coming this flick’s way.

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The Infiltrator

Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo
In this R-rated crime-thriller based on the autobiography by Robert Mazur, a U.S. customs official (Cranston) uncovers a money laundering scheme involving Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
The Plus: The player. Since hanging up his yellow hazmat as high school chemistry teacher-turned drug kingpin Walter White on AMC’s modern classic drama Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston has had an amazing second act as an actor and H’Wood player. Formerly known mostly for playing the father on Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, his Emmy Award-winning turn on Bad led to roles in the Oscar-winning Argo, as well as a Broadway run as President Lyndon Johnson in All the Way, which netted the actor the Tony Award for best actor in a play. For 2015’s Trumbo, he received his first Academy Award nomination. For HBO’s 2016 adaptation of All the Way, he’s sure to receive an Emmy nomination. So, how does he keep the momentum going until that time? By starring in the drug drama — familiar territory except for the fact that it’s based on an ’80s-set true story — The Infiltrator. Here, Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) directs a cast that includes Cranston (Godzilla), Leguizamo (John Wick), Benjamin Bratt (Ride Along 2), Diane Kruger (FX’s The Bridge), Amy Ryan (Central Intelligence), Olympia Dukakis (HBO’s Bored to Death) and Jason Isaacs (Fury).
The Minus: The odds. Furman’s impressive debut with The Lincoln Lawyer led to his abysmal follow-up, Runner Runner. Also, Cranston hasn’t always made winning picks since beginning this second act (John Carter, Total Recall).

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Now Playing

The Secret Life of Pets
Voices by Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks
***1/2 — We’ll Make Great … Well, You Know
Giving Life to a new potential franchise, the brains and buffoonery that created Gru and the Minions offers up a perpetual motion machine of entertainment that ends up to be the furthest thing from Despicable. In this PG-rated animated family flick, Max’s life as a favorite pet is turned upside down, when his owner brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke, but they have to put their quarrels behind them when they find out that an adorable white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) is building an army of lost pets determined to take revenge. When a movie begins with a pop tune that’s already fallen out of the Top 40, it’s not looking fit longevity. It wants very bad to be an eyeworm, which visually dazzles audiences and holds their interest while never striking the deep-seated emotional chords that would give it a classic status. Zippy, quippy and fun, Pets shows heart — just not enough to form the undying childhood attachment that underlies the definitive Disney and Pixar flicks. This isn’t Finding Dory, nor does it aspire to be. Like DreamWorks Animation, Illumination Entertainment — the studio responsible for The Secret Life of Pets — defines itself as the smart-alecky alternative to the more well-rounded stock put out by the minds behind everything from Beauty and the Beast to Inside Out. These often more cerebral family films work hard to hit every emotional beat, while Minions and Pets just want to make you laugh and give a moral (here, “working together” rises to the forefront). This is no easy task and laudable all of its own, mind you, and co-screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch definitely brig the laughs and characters. Chris Renaud, the director of Despicable Me and its sequel, beautifully tackles the secret lives of our forever friends by documenting their idiosyncrasies in great detail (terriers jump and run in circles when their owners come home, gray tabby cats frustratingly get items stuck in their fur) and giving them individual personalities. Of course, when voiced by Hart (Central Intelligence), Ellie Kemper (Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Lake Bell (No Escape), Hannibal Buress (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising), Eric Stonestreet (ABC’s Modern Family), Steve Coogan (Minions), Dana Carvey (Hotel Transylvania 2) and Bobby Moynihan (Sisters), a little personality goes a long way. Particularly, Louis C.K. (Trumbo), Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) and Albert Brooks (Concussion) deserve the highest praise for Pets. Not only do they bring depth and character to cartoons, but they’re also demonstrating a great knack for it between Disney Channel’s Gravity Falls, Zootopia and Finding Dory (respectively). Granted, a sub-plot involving an “owner killer” gang hits some weird and off-putting notes, but the accompanying jokes skewing the hipster, er, urban renewal of Brooklyn more than make up for it.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick
*** — Wedding Crashers and Burn
Working very wedding bell blue, the Pitch Perfect cast offers moviegoers bursts of hilarity in a comedy both original but patchy. In this R-rated comedy, two brothers (Efron, Adam Devine) place an online ad to find dates for a wedding, and the ad goes viral. For all of the Fockers out there, here comes a twist on the fish-put-of-water marriage comedy, and it claims to be “real.” Inspired by the life stories of Mike and Dave Stangle, the script spins real events into heightened bits, gags and routines that really push the adults-only envelope. This bodes well and unwell overall. Some scenes and exchanges kill, while others simply get murdered. Tonally, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates has problems. The script by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (Neighbors) turns out some ridiculously crowd-pleasing moments, like the two female leads showing up to work very drunk and ready to dance on tables, but they also serve up left-field flubs that border on surreal (Anna Kendrick’s Alice claims to have a husband who died of cancer, AIDS and then a plane crash). It wants to be funny and shocking but turns out to be neither. The thing with screwball comedies is that, as much as they are screwy, they are also buoyed somewhat in reality at every juncture. While this comedy’s Meet the Parents slapstick fares well, the more extreme and button-pushing moments do not. Still, despite an uneven tone, former Saturday Night Live director Jake Szymanski does deserve a great pat on the back for assembling a brilliant, comedy-friendly cast that tries to sell through the laughs at every possible moment. High marks go to Kendrick (Pitch Perfect), Efron (That Awkward Moment), Devine (Comedy Central’s Workaholics), Aubrey Plaza (NBC’s Parks & Recreation) and Stephen Root (Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine) even when the marriage of talent and material fizzles.

Episode 5 "Kill The Boy"

Episode 5 “Kill The Boy”

Small Screens

Games of Thrones – Season Six (2016)
Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke
****1/2 — Winter Is Here … Look Busy
HBO’s adaptation of author George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire medieval fantasies about power struggles among the seven kingdoms of Westeros continues. God has left the writer’s room. For better and worse, you can totally tell. Indeed, season six marks the first time in this already legendary program’s history where there isn’t any source material. Novelist Martin hasn’t finished this part of his epic story yet (books six and seven) and has reportedly only provided notes to series creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff as jumping off and concluding points. Granted, this ridiculously talented twosome has improved upon the novel before (last season’s harrowing story arc for Sansa), but they have also provided beats that feel like they have been ripped from the episodic television playbook (Jamie and Bronn’s Hope & Crosby-esque romp through Dorne, also last season). In fact, the maudlin and murky season five was the weakest point in Game of Thrones thus far, perhaps exasperated by Weiss and Benioff finding their own voice in the final hours of their in-house maestro’s tenure. With Martin now completely absent from writing duties and little GOT Bible to follow, they have stepped up and presented one of the most entertaining seasons in television history. It comes at the cost of predictability, however. In the past, unless you read the books (it’s a fantasy based very loosely on the historic War of the Roses), the program’s biggest moments (Ned’s death, Red Wedding and Purple Wedding) all came as gut-punch shocks — the sign of great writing. This season’s similar moments (Ramsey’s murderous spree, Jon Snow’s resurrection) often come not as surprises, but as crowd pleasers. To this end, season six is a Martin Xerox. As viewers, you will notice how easily things happen … but you find yourself satisfied and enthralled nonetheless. Jorah goes to rescue the Khaleesi and finds her ring in the grassy hilltop field and then goes on to a Khal city of 100,000 to find her with no problem as well. There is also a lot of time traveling too. Whereas previous seasons have painstakingly documented how long it takes to travel from one region to another, characters like Varys skip around the fictive landscape like a chess piece on an oil-slicked board. Still, for all of these TV Writing 101 moments, the show does surprise (yes, Jorah finds Kahleesi, but what happens after this drops jaws) and gives us the greatest plotted and filmed battle in television history in episode nine. And just when you think it can’t get better, episode 10 marks the series’ most entertaining hour (plus) thus far.